There is no overarching plot to Downton Abbey. There is no bad guy, no telegenic antagonist trying to upend the upper-crust lifestyle of the early 20th century.
Downton is a show about nothing in particular. The BBC show was also something of a revelation for American audiences when it was released in 2010. The first season was hailed a triumph. Downton would chronicle the downfall of the ruling class.
And then … not so much. Downton wandered off into a plot line about whether Bates, the dapper valet, murdered his wife. There was an episode where a dinner guest started spitting up blood everywhere. And still, the show’s loyal fans stuck with it through six seasons and a feature film. A second film, Downton Abbey: A New Era releases in May (trailer above). We wondered: Why is this show about nothing still popular? The answers to that aren’t necessarily simple, save for the first one.
Maggie Smith is Delightful
You didn’t really know what a dowager was before Maggie Smith showed up on Downton. Now, if you Google the word “dowager,” you get an endless stream of pictures of Smith, costumed as the dowager Violet Crawley. (The definition of dowager, in case you’re wondering: A widow with a title or property derived from her late husband.)
Maggie Smith is simply The Dowager now. And people adore her role, with web pages counting Smith’s top 50 lines. Town and Country even has a page devoted to her best zingers. A favorite line: “Principles are like prayers: Noble of course, but awkward at a party.”
Also a little awkward: Smith doesn’t appear to delight in playing the dowager. In an interview with the Evening Standard, Smith said her work in Downton and the Harry Potter movies “wasn’t what you’d call satisfying. I didn’t really feel I was acting in those things.”
And her 2017 comments that a Downton movie would be “squeezing it dry” created a minor ruckus, mostly because fans worried the producers might do a film without Smith. Of course, Smith played the role of witty sidekick perfectly, yet again. And she’s back again for the second movie. There’s a reason she won three Emmy Awards for playing the dowager.
Alright, we can’t resist. The dowager is all about one-liners. Here are three of her best:
“Don’t be defeatist dear. It’s very middle class.”
“It’s the job of grandmothers to interfere.”
And perhaps her most famous: “Vulgarity is no substitute for wit.”
Love Downton Abbey? Try Gilded Age for a new obsession.
Downton’s plots, such as they are, are often completely unrelatable. This is what you get for watching a show about the early 20th century’s British upper crust. Which tea will they serve, as we know the duchess simply cannot stand earl grey? Tune in for the next movie.
The fact that it’s simply about life — with no invading armies to repel or character development to be had — is part of the show’s appeal. Its attention to period-piece details gets raves from critics and fans. There are not only myriad online shops devoted to Downton-style dresses, but Gentleman’s Gazette bothered to do an exhaustive piece on what Downton Abbey actually got wrong. (Saving you the click: The colors and styles were accurate; they tried very hard to get it right, but the fabrics were sometimes wrong.)
It isn’t just about the clothes, it’s about the era. Downton, and other period pieces, is set in a time before cell phones and computers. That there are no invading hordes to repel is a huge part of the appeal. The show is simple in an era of superhero-movie complications.
And the show isn’t exactly about nothing.
Keep your period piece fascination going. Add Belgravia to your watch list.
The Plots are Actually Wild
Unless it’s a video of a yule log burning, things have to happen in shows. Downton didn’t shy away from making things happen. There was the time Branson plotted to spill slop on a visiting general, and everybody thought he was going to assassinate the army man. In a Christmas special, Matthew’s dead fiancé contacted the servants through an ouija board to tell them it was OK for Matthew and Mary to hook up. Fake Cousin Patrick showed up for an episode, pretending to be a member of the family.
It’s not so much that nothing happens in Downton; it’s that there is no overarching point to it all. The “upstairs” characters do rich-people things. Or the “downstairs” characters — the servants — do lower-class things. Sometimes, the characters dabble in the other world. Oh, the ruckus of it all.
Perhaps it was never meant to run this long. The first season of “Downton” had a point: the decline of the ruling class. But the show famously did a heel-turn away from that arc in the second season, where hours were twiddled away wondering if Bates, the valet, murdered his wife by putting arsenic in her pie. She died by suicide.
That’s nothing new. Bates was a long-suffering character. Show creator and writer Julian Fellowes was gloriously excoriated in an opinion piece on The Daily Beast for his treatment of Bates. The article, headlined “Just Kill Mr. Bates Already! How to Save ‘Downton Abbey,’” said Fellowes failed the show, and its viewers, by making Bates a punching bag. “Fellowes has failed for several seasons now to give him a reason to exist that is not idiotic, irritating, implausible, and deeply, depressingly tedious,” the article says.
Outrage over the show’s plot lines was common. It also, frankly, took the show too seriously. Downton was never about anything. The point was simply for viewers to live in a time gone by, if just for a while. So fans will likely wear their finest 1920s-era regalia and attend parties for Downton Abbey: A New Era. Pour some tea and then spill it when the dowager delivers another dry punchline. Sometimes simply existing in a bygone world is enough.
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