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Masterpiece Theater Y’all

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | January 19, 2011 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | January 19, 2011 |

I wrote last year about getting rid of cable and just watching television through the Internet. It’s been a smashing success, although the disappearance of a lot of episodes into Hulu Plus has left the concern that they are not so gradually lulling us into an outright pay model. I have the full intention of uber geeking out at some point and building a linux based media box so that via remote I can watch DVDs, internet video, Netflix instant, and live television with DVR capabilities. But that stuff takes time, so late at night when I can’t sleep I flip channels through the dozen or so channels I get without cable. The funny thing is that I find myself watching a hell of a lot of PBS because the networks are simply dead zones late at night or on the weekend. Ah, PBS, supported by viewers like you, the station that people with a hundred channels always flip through. News, documentaries, nature shows, and stuff they got from the BBC on cheap licenses. That means you can catch random old episodes of “MI-5,” old mysteries, and a whole lot of period dramas.

That brings me to “Downtown Abbey,” which is currently airing on PBS on Sunday nights under the Masterpiece Theater banner, which is something I don’t believe I’ve ever actually heard of except ironically or in SNL sketches and such. This particular series is sort of halfway between a series and a mini-series (think “Torchwood” series three), with seven episodes that are an hour and a half long each. PBS is putting the episodes on their website as they air, so the first two are up there now, and the third airs this coming Sunday evening. It’s also available on DVD, and a second series has been commissioned by the BBC to air during 2011.

“Downton Abbey” is a period drama set in the English countryside beginning in 1912. It’s set at the titular Downton abbey, an estate owned by the Earl of Grantham and occupied by both his family and a hierarchy of servants that outnumbers the family about four to one. Most of the plot’s action is driven by the problem that the estate is an “entail,” a legalistic hold over that dictates that the estate must be passed down through the arcane rules of inheritance and that the estate cannot be broken up in any way. The rules are unfortunate for the family because the earl has only three daughters, who being tragically short on penises will be left homeless once their father dies. And because the estate itself cannot be split, they will also be left broke because all of the money and the land are inseparable legalistically. The latter is of particular irritation to their mother, who as a rich American heiress, is the one who actually brought all of the money to the estate, which was teetering on the edge of insolvency before she married the current earl. Needless to say, the idea that her daughters will be left penniless in conjunction with the notion that she will be too if she outlives her husband leaves her less than happy. The introduction of the new heir, a distant cousin who is a middle-class lawyer (and even more horrifying to their sensibilities, the son of a doctor) is taken even less well by all concerned.

The servants are a fantastic bunch, ranging from a nearly sociopathic footman to a maid learning typing to become a secretary, to an old war companion of the earl. Much of the show’s humor and depth comes from this group, who are treated to a depth of character belying simple protagonist and antagonist relationships. They’re real people, who variously get along or not without deteriorating into simple soap opera or cardboard cut outs.

One curious trend I’ve noticed is that science fiction fans tend to have a love for a certain category of historical stories. I’m reminded of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, a massive 3000 page series that is set contemporaneously to Isaac Newton. Stephenson insists that it is science fiction, it has been read by a million sci-fi fans, and yet the story itself is almost entirely free of anything one would define as science fiction. Other than a minor plot point regarding an immortality draught that pops up as an aside at a couple of points, the novels are strictly historical fiction. But in Stephenson’s insistence there is a kernel of truth, however much of a genre stretcher it is: these novels are about why the world works the way it does. They’re about how the things we take for granted today were logically constructed. They are science fiction in the most literal sense that they are fiction of science.

That’s where “Downton Abbey” gets very interesting. It’s a story about the way that the world used to work not just from the voyeuristic point of view of a lot of period dramas, although it has gotten all sorts of praise for the fantastic sets, period dress, and that sort of thing. It focuses in on the old class system, on the landed elites, the servant class, the nascent middle-class. It side-steps the two dangers of historical fiction, avoiding using protagonists as modern mouthpieces of condemnation but also not just trumpeting nostalgic historical apology. It gets into the logic of the class system, how it started to fall apart, but also why it worked in the first place. The brilliant part of the series is the interaction between classes, both in the uncomfortable fish-out-of-water heir and in the relationship of the servants to the household.

There’s an interesting theme of the symbiosis between staff and family, a focus on the way that the staff takes pride in the estate, that this isn’t just a job to most of them. The idea that the butler takes real pride in the noble he serves looking perfect, that the success of the nobleman is directly success for the staff as well is an attitude so alien to modern thinking, that it’s fascinating to see play out on screen. To see the nobles defend and take care of the staff is something so easy to just be patronizing, but in “Downton Abbey” it is remarkably acted so that the sense is more of mutual roles, that this is the responsibility they have in exchange for the benefits that they get.

It’s a funny thing that in today’s colloquial speech “knowing your place” is considered demeaning even while “finding your place” is both commendable and a modern obsession. “Downton Abbey” is a fascinating look at exactly that nuance of place.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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