It’s nice to see PBS back in the game. There was a time when discerning viewers looked to public television for cutting edge, high-end TV. But that was before HBO began producing innovative original programming, opening the floodgates to competition from the private sector that frequently overshadowed public television.
Now “Downton Abbey” has recaptured the imagination of certain core PBS audiences: Anglophiles, dowager enthusiasts, and costume drama fans. The season-two premiere attracted twice as many viewers as PBS normally gets in prime time. More important it catapulted PBS back into the national conversation in a way it hadn’t been since “Brideshead Revisited,” which could generate audiences for other outstanding shows like “The American Experience” or “Frontline.”
Of course we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that “Downton Abbey,” which this season dramatizes the effect of World War I on the aristocratic Crawley family and its retainers, is as good as “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “The Wire” or other recent great television series. It’s not even in the same league as “Upstairs Downstairs,” to which it is frequently compared. “Downton Abbey” is to “Upstairs Downstairs” as “Dallas” is to “Friday Night Lights.” One is a serious drama and the other is a romp.
If a soap opera is a heavily plotted, relationship-focused, coincidence-dependent, continuing series in which the shenanigans of the characters advance the plot rather than explore how actual humans handle the vicissitudes of life, then “Downtown Abbey” is a soap opera. In the real world, would Lady Crawley remain so oblivious to the machinations of O’Brien, her malign lady’s maid? Would Bates, the long-suffering valet, continue time and again to sacrifice his own happiness for his exaggerated sense of honor? Would two soldiers missing for weeks at The Front materialize unexpectedly at Downton Abbey just as a morale-building concert for wounded officers reaches its emotional peak?
I thought season one of “Downtown Abbey” was an amusing comedy of manners – a fun concoction of snobbery, Snidely Whiplash villains and elegant costumes revolving around a pre-war inheritance struggle. But then I made the mistake of going back to watch season four of “Upstairs Downstairs,” which also depicted the wartime experience of an upper-class family and its servants. The contrast exposed “Downton Abbey’s” lack of gravitas and spoiled the fun.
Superficially, “Upstairs Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” have much in common: an heir and a manservant off at war; a fuddy-duddy butler overly concerned with the lack of footmen; a cantankerous cook; a privileged young woman who volunteers to be a nurse; a somewhat dim kitchen maid; references to actual historical figures. But they are fundamentally different shows.
“Upstairs Downstairs” is one of those rare old television dramas that is actually better than you remember. It’s a low-budget effort with primitive production values and no soundtrack, but the characterizations, dialogue, storytelling and portrait of an earlier era are as sharp as they are on “Mad Men.”
Unlike “Downton Abbey,” where everyone besides elder daughter Mary Crawley (the one complex character on the show) is either odious beyond rehabilitation or has a heart of gold, “Upstairs Downstairs” features real people with flaws and strengths. They aren’t heroes or villains, just characters struggling with vanity, pride, fear and ambition. They rarely do or say anything that seems contrary to human nature.
There are no unearned resolutions or sentimental breakthroughs between classes in “Upstairs Downstairs.” “Downton Abbey,” on the other hand, is all about sentimental endings and the warm glow of understanding that flows between people when conflicts are resolved.
But where “Upstairs Downstairs” really outshines “Downton Abbey” is in its stark depiction of the war. Unable to dramatize trench warfare because of budget constraints, it relies on the testimony of the shattered men who return home. Their stories are heartbreaking and terrifying, given voice to a hell where millions of men were turned into so much cannon fodder. We are left with a bleak and nihilistic picture of war’s waste.
“Downton Abbey” tries to depict the horrors of war, and it is undeniably sad when a significant character dies from his war wounds, but the mood is melodramatic, rather than tragic. The show’s truest moment is when the grievously wounded Mathew Crawley sees his mother approaching his hospital bed and begins to cry (what could be more primal than a grown man crying for his mother?) But the producers quickly cut away from this scene, apparently afraid to show raw human emotion.
The problem is that the sensibility of “Downton Abbey” is sunny, not tragic. World War I, the most epically disastrous event of the 20th century, is not the right subject for a feel-good soap opera. It’s too bad the series couldn’t have just skipped the war altogether and jumped ahead to the Roaring Twenties.
Looking back at “Upstairs Downstairs” today says a lot about how the audience for prestige television has evolved over the years. In the 1970s, a small but significant percentage of the population (educated upper-middlebrow Americans) had the patience and the attention span to watch what was essentially a staged play with only intelligent writing and solid acting to recommend it. That same audience in the 21st century needs to be catered to, challenged less and given more eye candy and tidier resolutions.
I’ll keep watching “Downton Abbey” to see how the various couples sort themselves out, but I consider it a “guilty pleasure,” not one that requires a lot of brain cells. For more serious dramas I’ll head back to HBO, AMC or the rest of the PBS line-up.