The Magazine

Class Distinction

Why ‘Downton Abbey’ resonates with me— and everyone else.

Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By WENDY BURDEN
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I’m not much of a TV watcher. Other than Top Gear episodes that feature Porsches, I tend towards Iron Chef or reruns of Two Fat Ladies. I lack the commitment ethos required (and invariably tested) by a multi-narrative television series.

Photo of Lady Mary Crawley in repose

Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) in repose

That being said, I confess I have spent this winter happily overinvested in Downton Abbey, absorbed in its lovely, bygone excess, and deeply concerned with the sluggish romance of Mary and Matthew—not to mention the war-torn state of the latter’s reproductive organs. And even though the second season of this PBS blockbuster has reached the end of its run, it is still being gushed about ad nauseam.

Justifiably so, for it satisfies on every level. The visuals are particularly toothsome; the production design would thrill the chambers of any OCD heart; and the costumes are equally fulfilling. The acting is first rate as well, Maggie Smith notwithstanding—she is genius. (And as a comrade-in-arms who shares a similar ocular physiognomy, not to mention marital status, Ms. Smith, as the Dowager Countess, has made mature widowhood, with all of its hard-earned intolerance, rather more appealing.) All of the predominant characters seem to inspire unusually strong feelings in viewers. Take Carson, the butler. He may look like a Maybelline mascaraed penguin in drag—even in his PJs. But I for one want to nest under his authoritative chins. That Carson knows precisely where he himself nests in his English God’s plan is the bulk of his
enormous appeal.

The mania for Downton is such that there are even a slew of online questionnaires you can take to see which character you are. Most of these are predeterminately fixed, just like all those “How Good in Bed Are You?” quizzes I used to take back when I was a virgin in high school. (According to Cosmo, I possessed the skills of a hooker, though no one has told me so since.) The quiz on the PBS website is not dissimilar, in that it is geared towards allowing anybody with the IQ of a tea bag to be deigned the character they most admire, be it the icky chauffeur Branson or the fabulously svelte and arch Lady Mary. This is a likely explanation for why everyone who has completed it is smugly self-satisfied: A sweet-natured friend protested she didn’t want to take the test because she just knew she would be O’Brien. But when a final click on the return key brought that villainous maid’s sneering, snake-coiffed visage to the computer screen in affirmation, my friend was clearly thrilled.

For me, however, Downton is more than mere entertainment; it is a masterclass in comedy writing. I possess scant literary training beyond high school English. What I learned about writing I learned in art school, cooking school, and even restaurant management school—and that was to ape the great, be they Michelangelo, Escoffier, or Benihana. Ask writers to borrow their books and they may be reluctant. That is because most pages are marked up and underlined and labeled with references for future use.

Downton has become my secret stash of snappy dialogue and one-liners. I watch it with paper and pencil because it’s a veritable candy bowl full of ideas for the taking. The wit, the placement, the delivery of lines, the clever vocabulary—I had forgotten what a potent word vulgar is—it’s all there for the taking. So when the Dowager Countess philosophizes, “It always happens. When you give these little people power, it goes to their heads like strong drink,” I think—hmmm, how can I use those showstoppers “little people” and “strong drink”? Same with “Of course it would happen to a foreigner; no Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house.” Or “Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H. G. Wells novel.”

Downton is dotted about with other small lessons in comedic writing, like Carson with that newfangled telephone. Or my favorite: When Cora is puking blood all over her deservedly guilt-stressed maid O’Brien, and O’Brien is, like, there, there milady. Didn’t that bad puppy come to heel. Then there’s the onscreen exercise of spelling out an accent. I hit the replay button (well, of course, I own the DVD set) and work on my phonetics: Anna to Mr. Bates, “Mista Beets .  .  . but Mista Beets!” All these tutorials are of paramount importance when a writer is focusing on embellishing a character, even though they might ultimately be cast aside by an editor in the way a mother scrubs makeup off her 8-year-old.

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