The most interesting characters in Downton Abbey are the writers

Downton Abbey is a ridiculous, pandering, soap opera with writers
who must be a team of high-tech robots perched over a tank full of
vivisected, but still living, human organs and brains. The
production, by which I mean the camera work, the sets and costumes,
the period research1, and, why not, even the acting, are

The fourth wall, falsely divided.
The fourth wall, falsely divided.

As such, Downton Abbey’s most interesting characters are the
writers themselves. How this can be is interesting in and of itself,
but first let me explain what I mean.

The Titanic

Downton Abbey begins with the heir to the Earldom of Grantham dying
on The Titanic, and so, immediately, the viewer knows what kind of
show they are in for. This show is going to be
superlatively historical, just like an episode of Star Trek on
the holodeck2. There are, of course, lots of ways for
people to die in real life. Hell, there are lots of ways for them to
die on Television. There are even plenty of ways for them to die in
historically appropriate ways. But the fact that The Heir to the
Earldom of Grantham dies on The Titanic forces us to ask at least one
of the following questions:

  1. What kind of people are these
  2. What kind of people do they think we

But here is the interesting thing: we ask these questions.
We ask them instead of turning the TV off. And so we must ask,
as viewers, what is going on here?

What is going on?

Downton Abbey is the television production equivalent of Get Smart,
and just as Maxwell Smart can only be Maxwell Smart, and hence
carry the show, if Agent 99 plays the dutiful straight woman, cleaning
up after him and making everything run smoothly, so too must the
actors and production teams, the cinematographers and talent scouts,
play Agent 99 to Downton Abbey’s writers.

We3 would never tolerate melodrama with the frequency,
boldness, and ridiculousness of Downton Abbey without the rock solid
grounding of the production. When not one, but TWO, women get chills
when their romantic partners are injured on the battlefield of World
War One (at the same time!), we might laugh, roll our eyes, or express
our incredulity to our friends, but we don’t stop watching. When the
supposedly dead heir supposedly shows up horribly disfigured by the
war, we can tolerate it. We can even tolerate it when Edith falls in
love with him, God help us.

And because we don’t stop watching, we can engage not only with the
show, but with the writers as a character in and of themselves.

Not breaking the fourth wall

When I watch Downton Abbey, I find myself trying to understand the
psychology and motivations, not of the characters, who are pretty
transparent, but of the writers. When a character might possibly have
cancer, and the writers would never simply reveal this sort of juicy
plot point outright, they must make us stew a bit, I find myself
saying: are the writers mean enough to give this character a
terminal illness? Do they think we think that this will
be compelling or “over the top?” When the show really surprises you,
you can’t help but feel that the writers have scored a point. And you
can’t help but wonder “Obviously the writers expect us to swallow this
shit and call it chocolate mousse, but are they eating it too? Is
that possible?”

What is surprising about this interaction is that it is between the
viewer and the writer, and that it takes place entirely through, but
without breaking, the fourth wall

Elevated to the Peerage

Below, in the footnotes, I remark that Julian Fellowes, the creator
and sometimes writer of Downton Abbey, is himself a member of the
British Aristocracy. It is difficult, in light of the observations
I’ve made up till now, not to read Downton, then, as a kind of
propoganda, and to read the antics of the writers as the hysterics of
propagandists everywhere. Certainly the show portrays Aristocrats as
almost uniformly selfless and dignified. While the servants are
portrayed as no less dignified, their dignity derives from their
dedication to service and not from more individualistic concerns.

Perhaps we can understand Downton, then, in the absence of any real
justification for propaganda, as a kind of Pornography of Britishness.
Maybe this even explains its popularity with American audiences, as,
generally speaking, the kind of dopey, harmless pornography that
Downton Abbey is usually has pretty universal appeal.

But I can’t help but feel that the unique tension of the show,
where the production is working its hardest to keep a veneer of
believability on a story which is spasming its hardest to break
out is part of what keeps us watching.


1: Although sometimes I feel that this aspect of the
is not
as excellent as it appears.

Incidentally, in that article, the show’s producer and
writer, Julian
makes the following statement:

The real
problem is with people who are insecure socially, and they think to
show how smart they are by picking holes in the programme to promote
their own poshness and to show that their knowledge is greater than
your knowledge, … The fact of the matter is that the really posh
people are pleased to see something on television that isn’t about a
dead prostitute in a dustbin, and they seem to just be enjoying the

On this quote I wish only to make two

  1. Julian Fellowes is himself a “real life”
    “aristocrat” who was recently elevated to the peerage
  2. Holy
    balls this guy must be a real delight at parties.

2Speaking of which, has anyone else observed how
influential Quantum
has been on shows like Mad Men and Downton Abbey?

3I’m pretty sure I mean the “Royal We” here.

One thought on “The most interesting characters in Downton Abbey are the writers

  1. Well-written. Considering television in terms of the writer(s) is a good idea, and these sorts of high-budget soap operas are great texts with which to do so.

    (End notes don’t work very well with this format – can you create a side column for notes?)

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