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Dowd: 'Downton Abbey' embraces fantasy

  • Joanne Frogat is Anna Smith and Amy Nuttall is Ethel on "Downton Abbey."

In real life, Americans may keen about income inequality. But on TV, they're keen for it.

“Downton Abbey” continued its upward ascent with viewers Sunday night, a gushing embrace of class snobbery that hasn't been seen since friends clustered across the country in 1981 — wearing black tie and clutching Teddy Bears and champagne glasses — to watch “Brideshead Revisited.”

I've resisted the “Downton Abbey” fervor. My grandmother and her nine sisters were tall, strapping women who immigrated to America from Ireland in the second decade of the 20th century and found jobs as maids, cooks and nannies for rich families with names like Gore and Mellon. So heaven forfend that I would enjoy watching Lord Grantham erupt in horror when his youngest daughter wants to marry the cute Irish chauffeur.

At the start of the fourth season, Maggie Smith's caustic Dowager Countess still can't stomach calling the Irishman by his first name, even now that the widowed Tom Branson is the estate manager and father of her great-granddaughter (dubbed a wicked “crossbreed” by the nanny.) As my great-aunts worked tirelessly to grasp shards of the American dream, they were not gliding about mansions playing confidantes to malleable employers, much less co-conspirators in moving the bodies of dead lovers.

It was a much tougher life than the democratized fantasy shown in “Downton Abbey.” Sure, Julian Fellowes' servants have to iron the newspapers, choose cuff links and scan for scratches in the silver candelabra, but basically the upstairs-downstairs hierarchies work in contented concert, mingling like family — warmly and sometimes spitefully.

Just as there is a yawning gulf between “Gone With the Wind” and the harrowing “12 Years a Slave,” there is a yawning gulf between the Panglossian PBS soap opera of manners and the dehumanizing life most servants led.

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