Why do Americans love Downton Abbey so much?

Sean "P Diddy" Combs claims to be an "Abbey-head". Michelle Obama requested advanced copies of the most recent series, and invited Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern to the White House - what do the yanks see in it that so many Brits don't?

Until recently in the United States, the costume drama was a minority taste. Merchant Ivory adaptations of 19th-century novels and the imported British series shown on US public television’s Masterpiece Theatre have long been regarded as the fusty province of wistful former English majors and the sort of matron who tours stately homes in white athletic shoes, marvelling over the lifestyles of the rich and historical.

Then came Downton Abbey, the object of almost as much fascination as the Harry Potter books before it. The drama, which debuted in the US in 2011, was the highestrated cable or broadcast show when its thirdseries finale aired in February this year, reaching 12.3 million viewers and becoming the most popular drama in the history of the Public Broadcasting Service. It has a remarkably broad appeal. The celebrities who claim to be obsessed with it include the late-night talk-show hosts Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson, the comedian Patton Oswalt (who live-tweets each episode), the country star Reba McEntire and the singer Katy Perry, as well as bona fide film stars such as Harrison Ford (who has hinted that he would consider a role in the programme) and the hip-hop singers Jay Electronica and Sean “Diddy” Combs.

The last example may raise eyebrows, but Diddy did make a hilarious parody video for the website Funny or Die, in which he was inserted into various scenes from the series playing an invented character, Lord Wolcott. He professes to be an “Abbey-head”, but since he pronounces it “Downtown Abbey”, the sincerity of that claim is subject to some doubt. If Diddy really is an Abbey-head, he’s got plenty of company. There has been an Abbey-themed promo spot for The Simpsons (Simpton Abbey, in which a pink-glazed doughnut was placed on a china plate with silver tongs) and more parody videos than you can count, including a drag version, a Breaking Bad version (produced by the satirical TV pundit Stephen Colbert), a Sesame Street version, The Fresh Prince of Downton Abbey and, naturally, a “Harlem Shake” version. Michelle Obama is such a fan that last autumn she requested advance DVDs of the third series from ITV and invited two of the show’s stars, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, to the White House.

Why do Americans love Downton Abbey so much? More than one Brit has asked me this before carefully explaining that, in the UK, the series is viewed not as top-drawer drama, but rather as the British equivalent of American prime-time soaps such as Dynasty. Don’t we realise that? In fact, we do – well, many of us do – and we relish the camp element of Downton Abbey, which is why there are all those parodies. But yes, there are other Americans who think of it as their foray into “classy” entertainment (as Harrison Ford called it), because it’s full of fancy English people, is set in the past and airs on public television. That the show appeals to different audiences in different ways is surely one of the secrets of its success.

Perhaps the most benighted critics are those would-be arbiters anxious to inform the rest of us that mistaking this sort of thing for art just won’t do. Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker welcomed the rather glum BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End starring Benedict Cumberbatch with hurrahs, averring that he could not “stomach” Downton Abbey, on account of “its blizzards of anachronisms, its absurd soap-operatics, and its Oprah-style oversharing between aristos and servants”.

Cumberbatch similarly dismissed Downton as a “nostalgia trip” that was “fucking atrocious”. Daniel Day-Lewis says he’s never watched it because “that is why I left England” and Jeremy Irons has likened it to a Ford Fiesta, which “will get you there and give you a good time” but not much more. (This from a star of The Borgias!) Irons hopes Downton Abbey will serve as a gateway drug to Shakespeare, apparently assuming that viewers might never otherwise be exposed to the Bard but now they’ve got a load of Lady Mary, it’s a slippery slope to King Lear.

The “nostalgia” to which Cumberbatch referred comes up a lot in a related form of concern-trolling surrounding Downton Abbey. Doesn’t the show, commentators ask with furrowed brow, fetishise and fawn over an outdated and unjust class system? Isn’t it troubling that the American public, despite its much-touted embrace of equality and meritocracy, gobbles up this “steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery”, to quote the British-born historian Simon Schama, in a desperate search for “something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present”? Schama can’t abide Downton Abbey, he wrote on the Daily Beast, having been subjected in his youth to “the motheaten haughtiness of the toffs” at a country house much like the titular abbey.

That is just the point, though: Americans may have suffered class wounds of their own, but not at the hands of toffs, whether motheaten or freshly laundered. Most Americans don’t even know what a toff is and the finer delineations of the British social hierarchy – the way a person’s speech can immediately place him or her in a very precise slot, for example – are largely lost on us. We have regional accents and stereotypes to go with them, but nothing so exquisitely telling as that. For Americans, the interlocking, classdefined relationships in a British country house in the early 20th century are intriguingly peculiar (why should Lord Grantham be taken aback to find himself related to a doctor?) or comically absurd (why must Daisy be kept out of sight of the family and its guests? And ironing the newspapers? Really?).

Americans have always found British manners and formality amusing, especially from a distance, where it is a lot less intimidating. There are few distances more unassailable than a century. The geographic, historical and cultural gulf between modern America and Edwardian Britain gives the milieu of Downton Abbey an exotic, theme-park quality. Even if Americans might daydream about what it would be like to work as a housemaid at the abbey or swan around in Lady Gran - tham’s spectacular dresses while being waited on hand and foot, neither scenario is even remotely an option for us.

For all its unfamiliarity, however, Downton Abbey wouldn’t speak to American audiences at all if they didn’t find much to identify with in the travails and intrigues that go on upstairs and down in the scullery. “I think most of the stories are about emotional situations that everyone can understand,” Julian Fellowes, the series creator and writer, platitudinously told the New York Times.

Downton Abbey as a dramatic setting has the advantage of being both a household and a workplace, two sites that have always proven fertile ground for conflict and pathos. But there is another parallel that American viewers often bring into play when engaging with this and other stories about the British class system: high school.

American popular culture has been reima - gining 19th-century British society as a version of American high school for decades, just not in genres where it’s likely to attract the interest of critics. Romance novels have taught American readers to understand the British class system in this way. Anyone who has read a decent amount of 19th-century British fiction or social histories of the period would likely be perplexed upon dipping into one of the thousands of “Regency” and “Victorian” romances published here every year.

The characters in these historical romances don’t behave anything like the British aristocrats of the 1800s – or like any other 19thcentury Brits, for that matter. But if you’re looking for the “blizzards of anachronisms”, “absurd soap-operatics” and “Oprah-style oversharing” to which Hertzberg objects in Downton Abbey, well, pick up a paperback and pull up a chair.

In place of the captain of the football team, the Regency romance has a duke, and instead of a shy bespectacled girl, the heroine is likely to be a young lady of ordinary looks and no fortune whose inner merits the hero, alone of all others, readily perceives. Instead of a catty cheerleader as the heroine’s romantic rival, there is a society beauty, complete with a mean-girl clique that might as well have been lifted right out of a John Hughes film. The sexual mores of the characters’ social circle, instead of being founded in the Christian morality, male supremacism and class pre - judices of 19th-century England, is merely a matter of prudish scandalmongering and mean-spirited, small-town gossip. The intricate, exclusionary subtlety of centuries of upper-class manners gets translated into the bratty snootiness of American adolescence.

Downton Abbey may not fit as exactly on to the familiar stock figures of the American high school but the rigid, claustrophobic social hierarchies of the high-school experience remain the easiest point of reference for US viewers. Lord Grantham resembles the highminded yet out-of-touch principal and his daughters the student body’s most popular belles, girls whose social and romantic lives serve as universal topics of conversation. Matthew Crawley is the new transfer student, who turns out to be a catch despite his modest background. The conniving O’Brien and Thomas are recognisable as the bullies who afflict so many sensitive adolescents, Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes function as the wise and seasoned teachers who can be counted on to intervene before things get too bad, and Daisy, with her string of hopeless crushes, speaks to many a formerly dreamy mouse.

All this probably explains why Schama, who has experienced the real thing, finds the setting of Downton Abbey oppressive while Americans see it as a great-looking venue, ripe with dishy spats, romantic triangles and overwrought drama. It’s not that Americans don’t grasp the injustice in the social hierarchy of Edwardian Britain; they just don’t take it seriously. It is part of the (dubious) mythos of American life that some day the tables will be turned: the ugly duckling could become a swan and the nerd a master of the universe.

For Americans, high school is rife with cruelty and unfairness, with an elite that benefits from the arbitrary blessings of birth (money, good looks, athletic prowess), but it doesn’t necessarily define you for life. High school is formative, but not conclusive. This is why you will never see an equivalent series set in, say, an antebellum plantation in the American South. Not only is that hierarchy way too close to home but (whether we admit it or not) we all know we haven’t yet escaped it.

While most of us, sooner or later, graduate from high school, to escape the British class system you have to get out of Britain entirely (like Daniel Day-Lewis). Americans look at the confining roles imposed on the characters in their beloved Downton Abbey and tell themselves that if worse comes to worst, they can always emigrate.

Laura Miller is the co-founder of and senior writer at salon.com

Grace and flavour: filming at Highclere Castle, the main location for the TV series. Photograph: Simon Paulin/Scanpix/Press Association Images.

Laura Miller is a co-founder of Salon.com

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

HBO
Show Hide image

How Girls made an entire episode out of a single conversation about sexual assault

“American Bitch” is a claustrophobic and clammy exploration of horrible rape debates.

Recently, I was at a party in London that a friend had brought me to. I knew nobody else there, and was happily chatting complete nonsense with a total stranger. Somehow the conversation meandered to a problematic male celebrity accused of domestic violence.

I made an offhand comment about how I couldn’t support him any more. The man I was talking to objected. Should we believe everything we hear? In under five minutes, our conversation had reached a point where he said authoritatively, “Are you really going to confidently throw around statistics like ‘over one in 20 women are raped’? Listen, I know the legal definition of rape.”

The machinery in my brain gave a familiar, dull clunk. Oh, I’m in one of those conversations. One of those conversations where a man tells a woman about what counts as rape and what doesn’t.

It takes a few minutes to realise that the latest episode of Girls, “American Bitch”, is one of those conversations. It opens with Hannah approaching a lovely white pillared apartment block, politely telling the doorman “I’m here to see Chuck Palmer.” She reapplies her lipstick in the elevator. Is she interviewing someone for a magazine? Picking someone up for a date?

Chuck meets Hannah at the door, asks her to take her shoes off, line them up next to the others, without touching his suede boots, and mentions that the “special slippers” are “just for” him. In case we were in any doubt, he says “Yes, I’m that asshole.” We see endless copies of books with his name on the cover, and certificates branding them New York Times Best Sellers on the walls, a Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction, even a photo of him with Toni Morrison. This is a very famous writer.

When Chuck admits it was “good” that Hannah showed up, she replies, “I’m just surprised you found the article that I wrote. You must have an ass-deep Google alert on yourself, this was like a niche feminist website, it’s not the front page of the Times.”

“It’s just I’m hypervigilant these days,” he says. “Look, I’m not trying to get an apology out of you.”

“Ok, good.”

There’s a very specific edge to their conversation – we’re in familiar territory. “I’m obligated to use my voice to talk about things that are meaningful to me,” Hannah goes on. “And I read something about you that troubled me, that troubled me greatly – namely, that you’re using your power and your influence to involve yourself sexually with college students on your book tour, and whether all those sexual encounters were consensual or not –”

“Ok, hold up, because that’s where this line is pretty fucking messy, when words like consensual are thrown around.”

Oh, here we are. One of those conversations.

The scene carries on like this long enough for us to realise that this is probably a bottle episode - with limited characters and sets to keep costs down - like Season Two’s “One Man’s Trash”, featuring Patrick Wilson. That was another episode focusing solely on Hannah hanging out in the big luxurious apartment of a richer, older man. But this one is more of an ethical dialogue about the problems of accountability verses privacy. For the full half hour, Hannah and Chuck debate. Chuck claims his own kind of victimhood. His personal life has been invaded, a kind of groupthink has ended with the presumption of his guilt, and now, he can’t sleep, having nightmares about his daughter discovering the allegations online. “You remember what happened at Salem,” he says gravely. “I’m the witch!” (A few moments later, he compares himself to “some fire and brimstone preacher”, seemingly not noticing the irony.) Meanwhile, Hannah stands up for the girls who claim Chuck assaulted them, adding her own experience as a victim of sexual assault to the discussion to try and help him to understand.

Of course, this isn’t simply an ethical problem explored in dialogue. The texture of their debate is as telling as the basic argument itself. Chuck repeatedly interrupts Hannah, when she’s saying things like “women who have historically been pushed to the side and silenced an–”. He asks sarcastic, aggressive questions like, Did I put a gun to her head? Did I offer her a job?” and, even, “How does one give a non-consensual blowjob?”

At the same time, he also tries to charm Hannah, singling her out as special. “Listen, you’re clearly very bright, I could tell that from the first sentence you wrote,” he says casually, a minute or two into their first conversation. “Why would a smart woman like you write a very long and considered piece of writing on what is ultimately hearsay?” he says soon after. “Cause you’re smart, you write well, you write sharply,” he insists, when she asks why he invited her over instead of a different journalist.

And it works. Chuck is just self-deprecating enough that we see flashes of humanity in him. He asks Hannah questions about where she grew up, giggles with her, and talks about her dreams to be a writer. “Maybe one day you’ll be famous,” he says. “And a lot of people will know some stuff about you – some stuff. I mean, they’ll think they’ll know everything, but they won’t. Like what happened to me. You thought you knew everything, but you didn’t.”

Hannah shakes her head like a schoolgirl in trouble. “No, I didn’t,” she says.

At this point, I felt a squirming in my stomach. Viewers have always been quick to blur the line between fiction and reality when watching Girls, and we know that Lena Dunham has plenty in common with both Hannah and Chuck: yes, she’s a feminist writer who has spoken out about sexual violence, but she’s a famous writer who has faced a degree of public condemnation – and was even accused of sexually assaulting her sibling. “We just wanted to look at it from all sides,” Dunham told Vulture of the episode. Was Girls really telling the story of the poor, misunderstood, sexually aggressive male writer?

The next scene takes place in Chuck’s bedroom, where Hannah is awestruck over a signed copy of Philip Roth’s When She Was Good – Roth’s only novel with a female protagonist, Lucy, who repeatedly attempts to connect with and reform the disappointing men around her. “I know I’m not supposed to like him because he’s a misogynist and he demeans women,” Hannah says, in a comment that could easily refer to Chuck as much as Roth, “but I can’t help it.”

Chuck eventually asks Hannah to lie down on the bed with him – whilst encouraging her to “keep your clothes on to delineate any boundaries that feel right to you” – and when she does so, he unzips his fly, rolls towards Hannah, and flops his dick onto her thigh. Hannah surprises even herself when she touches it, panics, and tries to leave.

It’s a typical Girls moment - ridiculous, blunt, and sudden but still funny, and it reveals Chuck once and for all for the predator he is, whilst simultaneously portraying him as pathetic.

“People don’t talk about this shit for fun,” Hannah tells Chuck, and she’s right, these arguments are not fun. As Dunham told Vulture: “We’re having so many conversations about rape culture and assault and they’re really, really important conversations, but a lot of women walk around with a lot of shame about things that don’t look like rape in the traditional way.” Although there’s a grim humour in the familiarity of these scenes, this bottle episode feels claustrophobic and clammy, with shots of Hannah rubbing her neck or looking away awkwardly. It’s sweaty and stressful.

“Anyway, last year, I’m at this, whatever, warehouse party in Bushwick, and this dude comes up to me,” Hannah says earlier in the episode. The two are old schoolmates, and they talk about a former teacher, who Hannah calls out as a molester. “And you know what this kid said? He looks at me in the middle of this fucking party, like he’s a judge, and says, ‘That’s a very serious accusation, Hannah.’ And he walks away.” Yup. Sounds like one of those conversations.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.