I got fed up with “Downton Abbey” midway through the last season. I’d grown weary of the suspense – Would Mary find a mate? Would Daisy find a life? Would Thomas stop lurking in the shadows? Who cared?
Bob and I had been dedicated fans since the beginning, when “Downton” commenced at the same time as a new edition of “Upstairs Downstairs.” I was sad when the “UD” producers bowed out, since I’d loved the original “Upstairs, Downstairs” when it aired back in the 70s. (And yes, the new one omitted the comma. Talk about modernizing!)
The same shattering event looms large in both series. To the folks at Downton Abbey, the sinking of the Titanic means the death of Lord Grantham’s cousin and his son, either one of whom could have been Robert’s all-important heir. We never meet them, so we have no idea of their suitability, but no matter – a male must inherit Downton, and that is that. Now the burden falls upon Mary, the eldest of Robert’s three (alas!) daughters, who must find a husband, and be quick about it.
While the Granthams shed no tears for their kin on the doomed ship, only the most hardened “Upstairs, Downstairs” viewer could help mourning lady Marjorie, a lovely woman we’d just gotten to know. When the butler presents the family with a cable she sent from the S.S. Titanic, we know before they do what it means. Arriving early in season three, it came as a shock to all, including me. Then a junior in college, I wasn’t a big TV watcher, and it was a new tactic, back then, to kill off a major character so early in a series.
I remember talking with Neil, my English professor and advisor, the day after that episode. He, too, had watched it – hadn’t everyone? – and I confessed how devastated I’d been. When I told him I felt silly for crying, he assured me it was perfectly natural. “It’s a soap opera, after all,” he noted. “They’re designed to tug at your heartstrings.”
A soap opera? Now I was even more chagrined. I was not one of those women who spent my afternoons eating bonbons and sighing over “As the World Turns.” My grandma planned her day around what she called “my stories,” but not my mom. There were too many other things to do. I will confess, though, to one summer at college when I fell down that rabbit hole. As part of the dorm-cleaning crew, I spent my days cleaning, having lunch, cleaning some more, then joining the housekeepers in what was evidently a regular ritual, watching whatever soap was on between 2:00 and 3:00.
“The Edge of Night”? “All My Children”? Its title, not to mention its harrowing plots and tragically fated characters, are lost to the mists of time. All I know is that we student workers were hooked, no matter how devoted to our studies of science, literature, or math. We had to know what happened next, and we became just as addicted as the housekeeping staff. But a summer of that was enough. I began to feel a bit sick at the way I was wasting my time, and was happy to go back to working in the library for the rest of my time at Coe.
Still, I remained a fan of “Upstairs, Downstairs” until its bittersweet end. I told myself I was learning about another time, another place. Surely this was an education, one that went down a lot easier than some of the classes I was taking.
So, too, with “Downton Abbey.” I was quickly caught up in the story of the polite but angst-ridden upstairs nobles – the ones who get to wear the sumptuous dresses and morning coats, the ones who take each meal at a yards-long table, served silently by footmen who come at the ring of a bell – and the downstairs staff, who know their place, who live to serve, and do so in plain but functional outfits. I noted quickly how the servants came to attention with a collective gasp any time a lord or lady descended to the kitchen to announce some weighty news.
The news, of course, is what drives the drama. The heir has died! Lady Mary is engaged to Matthew! Matthew is dead! But first, Lady Sybil dies in childbirth! Does this make “Downton” a soap opera? When an interviewer pointed out to Julian Fellowes, the show’s writer, that “there are not many plot developments, and then there’s a wave of them in the finale,” he replied, “It’s a reluctance on my part to allow a real – or ‘realish’ – narrative to develop into a soap opera.” If a soap opera is, as he says, a show with “many, many incidents,” I have to wonder. After all, Lavinia dies of the flu! Isis (the dog!) dies of cancer! Mr. Bates, and then his wife, are hauled off to prison! For a crime I’m pretty sure they didn’t commit!
Dramatic things do happen in real life. When too many happen at once, we’re inclined to mutter, “My life is a soap opera.” Onscreen, they’ve been replaced with “reality” shows. We all know those are scripted. They’re “realish,” to borrow Fellowes’ term. I have no desire to watch a Fake Housewife of Galena go about her high-heeled day. Funny how a show like “Downton Abbey” – not only scripted but rehearsed, lighted, costumed, and edited by professionals – can feel so much more real, and consequential, and heart-stopping than one peopled by non-actors. If “Downton” is a soap, bring it on. I’ll pretend I’m studying British history. Just so there’s not a test after the course finale.