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The Empathetic Upper Crust




Tonight marks the (American) return of the hit British television series Downton Abbey. For the uninitiated, the show takes place in England during the early twentieth century, when noblemen were, well, noble, and servants ran vast estates and were, for the most part, content with their lot in life. Or so the story goes. Actor and Academy Award winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes is the creative force behind Downtown Abbey, and writes with an empathetic flair for the human heart. It is this empathy that has, in my opinion at least, made the conservative Fellowes' production such a big hit, on both sides of the pond.

Irin Carmon of Slate.com is challenging this notion, wanting an answer to the question of "Why Liberals Love Downton Abbey." The piece struck me for a few reasons. For one, it picks up on the aforementioned stream of empathy that seems to embody the upper class of Abbey. For another, it doesn't shy away from asking why we (at least we as Americans, whose nation is founded upon the throwing-off of the British aristocratic shackles) are such suckers for this stuff. Because what is likely an undercurrent to Carmon's piece (and even my own thoughts) is that the conservative Fellowes' portrayal of the upper crust is, very probably, rose-coloured.

For an encapsulation of what drives Julian Fellowes' view of the British aristocracy that he crafts so lovingly in Downton Abbey, one need look no further than what he told the Guardian publication recently:

”At the risk of sounding sentimental, I believe the monarchy stands for a fairness that we like to think represents us. I hope ‘Downton’ has that kind of decency about it.”

So there you have it. The "decency" of which Fellowes speaks is brought to the fore during a scene in the first season when Matthew Crawley (heir apparent to the Downton estate) shows some lethargy at embracing the notion of being waited-on by servants, and remarks on how not all of the staff is necessary, and some should be let go. This makes the Earl of Grantham bristle, and fire back with (and I'm paraphrasing here) how there is a duty for the overseers/nobility to keep the lower class/servants employed. What would the downstairs people do if they were suddenly without jobs? How deep and far-ranging would the cuts go? At the end of the speech, Matthew is rather shamed into agreement.

If only real life worked in such a way. It is an unfortunate reality that those at the top tend to make decisions based on financial savings and gain first, and people second. One wonders if it has ever been different? And this drives at the heart of Carmon's piece, that so many of us (perhaps not just liberals and Occupiers) feel disdain and discouragement at what is perceived as our abandonment by the upper crust, the power-holders, the 1% if you will.

Perhaps this is part of the inviting charm and comfort of Downton Abbey? Fellowes' distorted decency aside, the show provides us with a reassuring fantasy that people -- regardless of how much money and how many titles they may have --- are inherently good. That they may not be perfect, but that they will always look out for the lesser among us. That they will not cut some of us loose, simply because it financially attractive to do so. This is, of course, fantasy. The real world doesn't work in such a way, and likely never did. But television isn't the real world. And that's what makes Downton Abbey such wonderful escapist fare.

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