I am a television enthusiast. The format has always been big in our family life. I remember watching (but not understanding) the finale of M*A*S*H. Jeopardy! used to come on during the dinner hour, and we’d test our knowledge between bites. I enjoyed Cheers and Northern Exposure with my parents while the adult meanings of each completely sailed over my head. My brother works in TV. It’s a thing.
After I graduated from college, I had time to get into TV again. I bought my first TiVo at 23 ((I’ve owned four.)) , and I’ve not looked back. I never watched LOST, but that’s only because I was too busy catching up on Gilmore Girls re-runs to make time for this new show. ((By the time I got caught up on Lorelai and Rory, J.J. Abrams was in his third season of torturing people without remorse. I guess I could go back and watch, but with how poorly the finale was regarded…)) I didn’t watch The Sopranos because I was too cheap to pay for HBO, but I picked up The Wire when Sean and Kat gave me a gift card that covered the first season’s price. I quickly bought the other
It’s not that I’ve always watched good TV. I also watched all the Law & Order series, which I found did not hold up well upon a second viewing. ((This did not, however, stop me from developing a checklist of episodes and ticking them off as I saw the re-runs.)) I also followed several seasons of Big Brother until I got tired of the self-loathing. The Amazing Race isn’t good television, but I have watched every season since Season 4. ((Ignoring the shitty family season, which I stopped watching as soon as they passed Huntsville.)) I also watch terrible shows like Archer and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and I stuck with Rescue Me through its dreadfulness and have maintained interest in How I Met Your Mother despite all its dithering. Suffice it to say that I don’t claim to have The Greatest Taste in TV, Ever.
If I’m going to make an effective argument as to why you should watch Downton Abbey, I need to explain why I like the shows that I do. I enjoy shows that tell a good story well, and I prefer ensemble casts.
My favorite show is The Wire. ((I am a self-respecting middle-class white dude under 40.)) What I love about it is that, unlike most shows, creator David Simon simply throws you into the swimming pool that is West Baltimore’s drug conspiracy without much in the way of standard pilot-episode exposition. You don’t know who any of these people are, and your job is to figure them out. That nice-looking black man in a suit who’s doodling on a legal pad? That man is a calculating fucker that will get you got. You don’t know that, though, when you’re first watching.
The other key thing that I like about The Wire is its realism, and not just the faithfulness of its portrayal of the decay of a once-great American city. What I love is that there are no real heroes, and that there’s only one real villain. Every “good guy” is fundamentally flawed, and most all of the “bad guys” are given a chance to show some humanity. The only absolute is Marlo Stanfield, a character for whom I can find no compassion. The character that a plurality of the show’s fans enjoy the most is Omar Little, the man who robs drug dealers like some modern-day Robin Hood. His complexity is only matched by Jimmy McNulty, and that only because the detective gets much more screen time.
Other shows that I have truly enjoyed are ones I’ve already mentioned. I’ve re-watched Cheers and Northern Exposure and gotten much deeper meanings from them the second time around. I watched M*A*S*H from the beginning, which was both funny and painful as I finally understood the use of the Korean War backdrop as a way to discuss Vietnam. I really do enjoy Gilmore Girls, although I feel that it has lost a bit of its lustre in re-runs. ((The main joy I find in GG is in the witty banter; now that I know what to expect, it doesn’t hold as much sway. I never knew where the Palladinos were taking me at the time, but seeing it a second time has just run hollow. Certain episodes are lovely—“Raincoats and Recipes” being the obvious favorite—but watching the show now feels like a chore.))
I first heard of Downton Abbey at a Derek Webb concert. Perhaps I’d seen it before on Twitter, but it didn’t register to me. I asked my Twitter people about the show and got back a lot of comparisons to other shows that I haven’t watched. ((Friday Night Lights was the most frequent one. I don’t care to watch a show with a high school football backdrop. Sorry to miss a show you like.)) I did have one friend who convinced me that I’d get wrapped up in the story quite quickly because of the quality of the writing, so I gave the first episode a shot. I thought it was okay, but I watched a second one, during which I laughed. Then I got to the third one, which … yes, yes, Mr. Pamuk. I was hooked. I ended up watching five episodes on Super Bowl Sunday, which made for a lot of time on my couch. ((I had a bad back, so it was about all I could do that day.))
Here’s what I wrote on Twitter about Downton:
Class upheaval. Three sisters with no direct heir. Love. War. Family of blood and of employment. Cunning. Feminism. Life anew. #downtonabbey
I also wrote a longer bit on Facebook at the request of a friend:
The longer review: imagine an earl with no direct heir, a family of three girls. Bring in a third cousin purely by research, a lawyer but certainly not an aristocrat, to be the heir after the first-cousin heir dies on the Titanic. Love abounds, then falters. That gives you the early setup.
It delves into the dynamics and cunning of the family upstairs—replete with a domineering dowager countess who is relentlessly funny—while not ignoring the servant family downstairs. They are indeed a family: unmarried, living in service to their lord and ladies. As you would expect, they end up finding things with each other.
The arc of the show is what happens when the British class system falls apart in the era surrounding World War I. This is beautifully cast through a family full of girls, women who are now primed to burst through walls that had previously hemmed them in.
It’s an entirely different show than The Wire, which is fundamentally about the failure of American cities through moral corruption writ large and small. David Simon came at television writing as a novelist, where Julian Fellowes comes in from film writing. They’re both very good in very different ways.
With both shows, you’ll know after the third episode if you like it. With The Wire, it will start with checkers with chess pieces, and with Downton Abbey, it will start with a foreigner. If you do not care about the world portrayed to you at either point, I’m going to understand, as not everyone will like every show. These are just two shows whose stories have captivated me in ways that few others have. Both shows reward a careful viewer.
Lastly: Downton Abbey is beautifully shot. It’s a single camera show, and they have this trademark device of a long shot, often 90 or more seconds, walking through the house with multiple characters then moving around an assemblage in a very fluid manner. More than once, I have rewound a scene just to figure out how it was lit and shot. I have seen but a few foibles.
I don’t buy TV shows to re-watch very often. The Wire was an exception, and Downton Abbey will be the next one. The first season is on Netflix Instant, and I encourage you to give it a try.
I have since bought both seasons on Blu-Ray, and I plan on re-watching it at least twice before Series 3 airs in September. I was so caught up in the story the first time that I didn’t always notice the mechanics of what they were doing. I also have an idea that I may write about the show and what I find interesting about it, although that dream is likely to be placed atop the pyre of previous writing projects.
If you think that this show would interest you, you should check it out. If your name is Don Chaffer, you should take my advice and put in the time to watch it.