Downton Abbey is back--with all its delicious absurdities. There is the Lord who doesn’t have an evening jacket and is forced to make do with a mere tuxedo for dinner. “I look like a Chicago bootlegger,” he complains. If that wasn’t bad enough, the stove isn’t working so guests must make do with a cold buffet. Part melodrama, part cheeky and utterly gorgeous, the show’s enough to make an Anglophile out of anyone.
There’s been lots of speculation about why Downton Abbey, the British import on PBS set in Britain in 1920, has garnered such a wide audience with a popular hashtag, #DowntonPBS. Shirley MacLaine who is making an appearance this year as the wealthy, free-spirited relation from America, notes that with multiple plot lines, the story is a costume drama for the attention-deficit plagued modern audience. Surely that’s part of it. Much has been made of the parallels between the World War I era--the show began as the Kaiser loomed--and our own times, what with the widespread adoption of phones and cars making the world flat in a pre-iPhone kind of way. Social mores are in flux; one daughter runs off to Dublin with the chauffeur, an Irish nationalist. But the real nerve it strikes is economic anxiety.
Last night’s show was all about the possibility of the Grantham family losing their beloved Downton Abbey estate after Lord Grantham bet his wife’s fortune on stock in a Canadian railroad. (And this is 1920, almost a decade before the Depression. We can only imagine a decade hence.) The idea that one’s fortunes are ephemeral makes sense to us, too. When Lord Grantham incredulously wails that he was assured his stock couldn’t go down, is he any less naive than the entire financial industry that bet that the housing process could never fall?
Later in the show, over whiskey in his library, he laments to that American relation that he feels like time has passed him by. He feels like a species facing extinction which, of course, he is. She urges him to adapt and he fears that he can’t. Is that so different than the woeful words of men in my colleague Hanna Rosin’s book, The End of Men? When Rosin speaks with Alabama industrial workers who have lost their jobs and can’t find a new way forward while their wives become household breadwinners, it echoes faintly of Downton. Lords aren’t laborers, but the fear of losing it all and the torpor that comes from not being able to adapt to changed and lesser circumstances, well, that’s us, too.
Television is awfully good at taking our woes and transferring them to a different time so it’s at a safe distance and yet familiar. M*A*S*H* was set during the Korean War but was really about Vietnam, but at a more tolerable remove. Don Draper’s struggle to cope with the 60s on Mad Men has parallels to our own sexual and cultural revolution, even as the differences--single family breadwinners, kids not wearing seat belts--highlight differences with our own.
We’ll find out this season if the Grantham family keeps its fortunes, if it can jury-rig a way to keep its legions of valets and footmen and scullery maids at work. Can the Grantham clan make it in this new world? We care because it’s a question we’re asking ourselves, too.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the PBS series. It is Downton Abbey.