Yes, ‘Downton Abbey’ Is a Soap Opera. So What?


In the ’90s, before The Sopranos, you could still hear elitists spouting such haughty chestnuts as, “I don’t have a television machine.” While a few of those types still exist (perhaps you’ve spotted them now and then in the Flavorwire comments section), the 21st century has given rise to a new breed of TV snobs: the folks who only watch “serious” programming. You know, like The Wire and The Good Wife. These are the people who have all of Twin Peaks on DVD but have never watched an entire episode of a reality TV show. And now, they’re the ones who have turned against Downton Abbey.

Earlier this week, when Michal Lemberger at Salon published a piece called Downton Abbey, we’re breaking up,” she gave public voice to the objections I’ve heard from many friends and acquaintances in the past few weeks. While the series was once a highbrow period drama worthy of the Masterpiece Classics brand, she argues, it has become — to repeat the phrase that absolutely everyone who feels betrayed by the show uses — a soap opera.

Technically, Downton’s critics are right: A soap opera can be broadly defined as a serial drama with multiple story lines and episode-ending cliffhangers. If we stuck to that definition, though, we’d have to admit that many shows TV snobs love are soap operas, too. Is Game of Thrones not rife with subplots, suspense, and the kind of lurid romantic intrigue (incest! Illegitimate children! Lots of weird sex!) that drives the prototypical daytime soap? As one male Downton fan explained in an article about men who love the show, “If you like The Sopranos, you like soap operas, too. You just like yours with guns and cursing.” Another added that pro wrestling and even real sports are rife with sudsy elements.

So, since everyone from WWE addicts to George R.R. Martin geeks can embrace soapy entertainment, what are Downton haters actually complaining about?

In her Dear John letter to the series, Lemberger makes a lot of high-minded complaints. “What so many viewers fell in love with was not just the setting, or the clothes, or Lady Mary’s magnificent eyebrows (which, I’d like to note, deserve an entire plotline to themselves),” she writes. “It was the complexity of the whole. There was an attention to detail in Season 1 that drew the viewer into its world.” She identifies Downton’s nuanced class consciousness as what once made the show compelling.

But then Lemberger gets to her real problem: “Downton Abbey was appointment TV for my husband and me, two people whose tastes rarely coincide. He watches sports. I watch upholstery. But as the season has progressed, the groans from his end of the couch have gotten louder.” So, that’s it — the heart of what detractors are really complaining about. In its second season, the show has begun to strike some viewers as openly — nay, brazenly! — female oriented. While it used to be required viewing for everyone who’s ever donated enough to own a PBS tote bag, Julian Fellowes has tipped his hand, and it’s all queens. And, perhaps because everything women like more than men is ripe for popular scorn (think “chick flicks” vs. action blockbusters), the author is embarrassed enough by its girlie elements that she now seems to believe her beloved costume drama has devolved into World War I Gossip Girl.

The shame of it is that, in insisting that last season was brilliant (even in its soapiest moments, like when Mary screws a Turkish diplomat to death) and this season was pure melodrama, Lemberger fails to notice that these past several episodes have shown just as much shrewdness about class and history as the first few.

While she gives the Dowager Countess and “earthy” Mrs. Patmore a pass, she’s not impressed with Jane, “the housemaid conjured as if to fill Lord Grantham’s lonely, frustrated fantasies.” In fact, the relationship between the Crawley patriarch and his servant — a war widow — incorporates many subtle class tensions. Lord Grantham has quietly been Season 2’s most fascinating character, his near-constant malaise a result of shame about his gilded-cage exclusion from the war coupled with the creeping realization that a new era is on the horizon. The aristocrat who can’t even dress himself without help from a valet is becoming a relic, and he knows it. It’s guilt over her husband’s sacrifice that brings him close to Jane, and his own conflicted feelings about his privileged life — not to mention his privileged wife — that briefly drive him into her arms.

Mary, meanwhile, who Lemberger claims has become one-dimensional because she “would [once] string a man along for money without a second thought, now spends most of every episode crying over her lost love,” has actually grown into a richer character in Season 2. The loss of her first real love has put her life in perspective, and Mary has become more self-sacrificing and less cruel as a result — without losing her intelligence or fire. More like the protagonist in a great novel than a character in a melodrama, she has learned from her mistakes and matured.

Downton Abbey isn’t any more or less of a soap opera now than it ever was. Those “quality television” viewers who lament its downfall need to admit to themselves that it’s never exactly been a joyless experimental film or postmodern novel — although that may require coming to terms with their own susceptibility to the charms of serial drama. The show has always mixed serious social themes with salacious plot twists. And unless you believe that ladies’ tastes are just plain inferior, the realization that its chief interests, like Jane Austen’s, traditionally appeal more to women than men shouldn’t change a thing.