Like the scene in Jezebel when all the slaves surrounding the Louisiana belle Bette Davis are singing ever so happily and merrily away, Downton Abbey's inference that a life of being "in service" can be a happy one is a hard sell. The show's equally questionable premise that some servants are so loyal they willingly sacrifice their personal lives for the good of the family they serve is also a humdinger when it comes to belief. When Mrs. Hughes (Phyliss Logan) chooses remaining a housekeeper instead of marrying a loving man and the valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) goes back to his blackmailing witch-wife rather than allowing disgrace for the rich folk, I can't be the only one who thought "Are you daft?" Still, the viewer response to this obvious knockoff of the older and hugely successful PBS program Upstairs, Downstairs is enormous and enthusiastic.
The Dowager Countess, as played by the indomitable Maggie Smith is crisp and wonderful. Unfortunately, the lady of house, Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) seems a pretty marionette manipulated by her lady's maid, that meanie O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran). Lady Mary is portrayed by Michelle Dockery, an actress who knows it is more interesting to watch someone fighting an emotion than giving in to it and the most affecting and tender scenes belong to her. As for the men, the older gents often seem sexier than the young chaps. Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) are all a tad pompous but they are also stalwart and touchingly honest. The younger men, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), William (Thomas Howes), and Thomas (Rob James-Collier) too often seem pouty and self-pitying but occasionally have moments of genuine charm. I feel I've seen most of these characters before because I have, in other PBS shows and films. A PBS favorite is the recurring stereotype of the Irish maid with the I.Q. of a shamrock.
Downton Abbey creator-writer Julian Fellowes is comfy "borrowing" from others as evidenced by his lifting the flower show competition scene from the 1942 classic film Mrs. Miniver -- the powerful old woman who wins unfairly each year finally allows the humble gardener with the superior rose to receive the honor he merits. Tricky, this fine line between paying homage and downright stealing.
Admittedly, it can be a bunch of fun to sit in one's flannel jammies and watch the wealthies in their silks and satins as they say goofy things like "How can we manage a house party without a single footman?" But suggesting being the maid that the mistress of the mansion confides in is almost as much fun as being the mistress of the mansion is asking way too much of viewers on both sides of the pond. Having spent most of my life in a gentler but still demoralizing form of servitude known as the office environment, my feelings on this subject are best expressed by Mac-the-Knife in Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera -- "What's murdering a man compared to hiring him?"
I watch a great deal of PBS for the same reason many do -- elegance. Any episode of Poirot is a perfect example. And shows like Downton Abbey go into elegance-overkill. To viewers in England and here in the states, weary of decade long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and an ongoing worldwide recession, these shows offer the same easy and pleasing escape as the extravagant movie musicals of the 30's when Ginger Rogers in a gorgeous gown and Fred Astaire in a perfectly tailored tux danced in a Depression-free unreality. Perhaps it is a given that all soap operas have an impressive amount of hooey in them. What makes Downton Abbey so appealing is it also has an impressive amount of truth in it, especially in matters of the heart, and that truth keeps viewers caring and watching. And I'll be one of those watching this flawed but elegant romantic soap opera.