There’s no denying that Downton Abbey is a deliciously entertaining show. It’s not quite a soap opera, but the storylines are so absurd and the emotions of the characters are so heightened that we can’t help but feel simultaneously moved and manipulated. It’s all so superficial, but we love it anyway.
However, there is a more serious issue that threatens to undermine our enjoyment. Creator Julian Fellowes’ intention with Downton Abbey is to devote as much time and consideration to the stories of the servants who live downstairs as to those of the Grantham family who lives upstairs. By doing so, Fellowes suggests that the physical barrier of the household that separates the rich from the poor represents the class hierarchy of 19th and 20th century England.
Fellowes uses an omniscient perspective to tell his story, which eliminates subjectivity and causes the audience to view all characters — the rich as well as the poor — as equal. By breaking down these class barriers, Fellowes shatters the illusion of aristocracy, and implies that beneath the veneer of fortune and fame lie individuals whose lives are just as troubled as their poor servants. This may make for dynamite television, but it’s important to recognize how insignificant the Grantham family’s plight is compared to those of their servants.
Week after week, we are asked to watch, relate to, and feel for the Grantham family. However, as they worry about losing their millions (I’m talking to you, Lord Grantham) and whether or not they will find happiness and love (I’m talking to you, Lady Edith), servants like Ethel are trying to raise a child in poverty. We shouldn’t have to ask ourselves which is worse, but the show often makes us wonder by giving both situations equal dramatic weight.
It’s tempting to care about the Granthams, especially when they’re so kind to their servants. However, we must remember that they are fictional. In real life, the hardships of the wealthy couldn’t compare to what those who lived downstairs had to go through.