When people need a break from partisan politics, economic woes, traffic, overflowing email boxes, and the other challenges of modern life, many turn to the usual methods of escape – football playoffs, the 2-for-1 happy hour martini special, or catching up on Say Yes To The Dress. But for many of us these days, the ultimate escape is Downton Abbey, the PBS costume drama that has surprised even public TV fans and become a runaway cult hit. And our devotion to the show can border on obsession – so to tell if you’re totally hooked, here are a few questions:
– Do you think Lord Grantham is blind to Thomas’s scheming, or just misses Bates so much that he doesn’t notice? (And bonus point: Can you pronounce “valet” properly?)
– Have you ever wondered how Daisy has worked in the kitchen at least since 1912 and by 1920 hasn’t found another job, used any of the money she got as a war widow, or in fact aged one bit?
– Was Lady Mary technically a virgin on her wedding night? (Which involves answering whether Mr. Pamuk’s heart attack was before or after they did or didn’t do anything, as well as debating whether Mary secretly wanted him to come to her room or was just flirting at the fox hunt.)
– Have you started referring to Sybil’s husband as “Thom,” or is he still “Branson” to you? (And before they eloped, how many times did you watch a scene with them and shouted to the television, “Just kiss her already!”?)
– Will O’Brien ever confess about the bathtub episode which caused the miscarriage; or if not, will she at least update her bangs?
– How does Anna get so much time off (to sleuth for her unjustly incarcerated husband) yet still manage to be both head housemaid and lady’s maid to the two girls?
If you understand these questions enough to answer any of them, then yes, you’re a Downton Abbey addict. However, if the questions make absolutely no sense to you and you fail to see the appeal of what sounds like a silly soap opera, try to see it from a fan’s point of view. Of course it’s silly, and like all good soap operas it’s full of ridiculous plot twists, overly convenient coincidences, and sappy, manipulative moments that make you cry even while you’re thinking, this is stupid. BUT – and this is the key point – also like a good soap opera, the characters engage the audience. Villains we love to hate, persecuted martyrs we root for, unrequited lovers we want to unite: Downton Abbey has all those and more, including the resident font of brilliant sarcasm, the Earl’s mother (and bonus points if you know her first name is “Violet” but she is the Dowager Countess and should still be addressed as Lady Grantham even though Cora has superceded her as Countess). Plus Downton gilds all those soap opera traditions in a lovely veneer of historical details, fabulous period costumes and mellifluous English accents, so we get to feel intelligent while indulging in a guilty pleasure. Haven’t you ever known someone with a British accent, who can make even the most banal statement sound erudite? (“Dahling, I’m terribly afraid that one must go to the loo” sounds ever so much more elegant than “I gotta pee.”) And we don’t mind the silly plot twists when the characters are dressed so beautifully (although am I the only one who wonders if they’re wearing equally period-authentic undergarments?) or using what look like real antique kitchen tools and feather dusters. Add in the magnificent Maggie Smith, who could read the phone book and make it witheringly brilliant, and it’s no wonder the show is such a success.
So here’s my version of the theme music (which is actually pretty strange and more suited to a Hercule Poirot mystery, not to a montage of chandeliers and vintage dishes, on top of which, what’s with the “hound’s bum” in the opening shot of the house?) in tribute to Downton Abbey fans and the people who love them but don’t quite understand them”¦