You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?
Nope, not in the case of “Downton Abbey,” the early-20th-century period drama that, despite being a terribly tasteful PBS “Masterpiece” production, despite having Edith Wharton and not Suzanne Collins as its guiding spirit, became a pop-cultural sensation after its 2011 US premiere.
Great numbers of viewers quickly fell in love with the series, with its gold-plated upstairs and its un-upholstered downstairs, with its many almost-kisses and Maggie Smith’s drag-queen shade, with Mr. Barrow’s Evil Smoking and the ever-controlled Mr. Carson’s rebellious eyebrows. And those viewers have never strayed; the show’s US ratings more than doubled over the seasons, putting PBS back on the map with the Nielsens and at the Emmys. The final episodes premiere on Sunday at 9 p.m.
We didn’t take “Downton” for granted, even when, alas, it morphed from an insightful and wise look at a society and an economy in flux into a repetitive and sometimes unintentionally funny soap. Throughout its five seasons, fans have worshiped it with the fervor of evangelical Anglophiles, ever grateful for its vision of gentility and restraint, not to mention for providing us with an opportunity to use “dowager,” “footman,” and “EX-quisite.” We’ve painstakingly charted its ups (Mary’s wedding) and downs (Matthew’s death by unsigned contract), paying close attention even when we were disappointed with creator Julian Fellowes’s story choices. Some shows, such as “The Wire” and “Arrested Development,” come into fashion only after cancellation, but not “Downton.”
I have seen season 6 of the series, excluding the finale, and I’m happy to report (without any spoilers) that it remains what it has been for years — a pretty melodrama, whose characters we’ve come to know well, grounded in a thought-provoking historical moment. Do the characters finally break out of their now-predictable behavior? No, not really, although — block your ears if you’re squeamish — we learn that Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes do indeed plan to have a sex life. When the season begins, the new couple are trying to decide whether or not to hold their wedding at Downton. Lady Edith continues to focus on her illegitimate daughter, Marigold, while proudly serving as a thoroughly modern working woman. Violet and Isobel maintain their epic frenemy-ship, and the Bateses wait nervously — again! — to find out if one of them will land in the clink.
And Mary remains as caustic as ever. Played with stiff dignity by Michelle Dockery, Mary has been a fascinating and unusual series heroine. She is remarkably flawed, buttoned-up, and unsentimental, which sets her apart from most of the female leads we meet in period dramas. Her priggishness and her inability to be kind to Edith don’t come off as mere immaturities, qualities that will disperse once she is in love again. They aren’t portrayed as hidden “Pride and Prejudice”-like virtues, or solely as faults born of female oppression. She is a difficult person, plain and simple. And yet her strength, her dismissal of dated mores, and her loyalty to her lady’s maid, Anna, evoke not just sympathy but well wishes for her ultimate happiness. Fellowes really outdid himself when he came up with her. Good show, old boy.
For season 6, which is set in 1925, Fellowes goes all in on the premise that distinguished “Downton” from the start — the changing tides of the time, as the walls of the aristocracy become increasingly weak and porous. The process began in 1912 with an entail that left Downton and the Grantham earldom to a mere solicitor, Matthew. Daughter Sybil further watered down the family’s nobility by falling in love with the chauffeur, Tom Branson. Now money is scarce, taxes are high, and, as Mary knows and her father, Robert, is grudgingly accepting, the house staff must shrink and jobs must be combined. A neighboring estate has gone bankrupt, with its contents up for auction. “Your lot’s finished,” an unpleasant money-grubbing lady tells Mary in the premiere.
It is endlessly interesting to watch how these vast shifts — including the coming of technology and automobile use — play out in specific lives, in the characters’ daily moral and emotional choices. When I think about why “Downton” has been so popular — so much more so than many of the top-notch “Masterpiece” series that came before it — I wonder if it is in part due to our recognition that our own world is also undergoing deep levels of structural transformation.
We, too, are in the position of having to adapt or become superfluous. They were dealing with an onslaught of mass production and mechanization that eliminated jobs; we are dealing with an onslaught of computer technology that has eliminated entire industries. They were facing the closing of the gap between rich and poor; we are facing the broadening of the same gap, between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. Yes, the 1960s are famous as the most recent era of change, but this moment — with our go-nowhere wars and political gyres, our gay rights and our racial divides — arguably rivals that decade. A century from now, audiences may well be watching something like “Gates Estates” or “Zuckerberg’s Burg,” and studying the culture of our own era of transition.
But of course another part of the appeal of “Downton” is its splendor. Even as the social and financial hierarchy of early-20th-century England crumbles, the homes and the costumes are just too lovely. While it chronicles a dying culture, “Downton Abbey” is also lushly filmed elegance porn that transports us to the best antique store ever. Oddly enough, it is both elegiac and aspirational.
MASTERPIECE: DOWNTON ABBEY
Starring: Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Joanne Froggatt, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera, Lesley Nicol, Penelope Wilton, Kevin Doyle, Rob James-Collier, Allen Leech, Raquel Cassidy
On WGBH-2, Sunday, 9-10:15 p.m.
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