IT SEEMED that Downton Abbey, like the zombie apocalypse, would never end. And yet the series created and written by Julian Fellowes will close this sixth season. Of all the shows on TV, the one Downton Abbey reminds me of is The Walking Dead. Both are global hits that keep going strong despite the repetition of plots (They might lose their money, they don’t, they might get eaten, they don’t) and the departure of major characters, through slaughter or real-life career ambitions. (I point you to the enjoyably nutty action thriller The Guest, in which ex-Downton star Dan Stevens displays abs you could grate cheese on. Cousin Matthew! Who knew.)
More importantly, both series are about extermination and survival. True, the probability that Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) will come out of the kitchen — gasp! — and devour the Dowager Countess Violet (Dame Maggie Smith) is slim, although Bates the valet (Brendan Coyle) is always getting accused of murder (Twice is not “only,” it’s a lot). However, Robert Crawley the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his family are also trying to get by in an increasingly democratic society where people earn their keep. “What is a weekend?” Lady Violet asked in the first season. As the tetchy matriarch, Maggie Smith can invest a line with so much meaning, she makes any writer seem brilliant.
My editor tells me that The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey air on the same night, which is very considerate of the cable channels. After intense pursuit and carnage, one can decompress by gawking at the place settings and pretty clothes. (For extra posh, pronounce close as in, “The close are awl-wiz marvlous, rarely.”)
What is the secret of Downton Abbey’s success? I can cite three main attractions.
One, the Crawleys don’t have to work. As relics of feudalism, their main occupation is to look smart and perfectly ironed. Remember that episode in which Lord Grantham couldn’t find his tails and had to wear a tuxedo to dinner, whereupon his mother mistook him for a waiter? Hahaha! Why were we laughing?
Sure, they have financial worries, like when Lord Grantham made those disastrous investments and it appeared that the family might have to sell something. Oh, the shame! Matthew had to bail them out with the surprise inheritance from his fiancee who overheard him talking to his true love Mary (Michelle Dockery) and promptly contracted a fatal disease that neatly removed her from the equation, but only after Matthew, Mary and Robert had a long argument over the ethics of profiting from the death of your jilted lover. (1.1. Watching Downton Abbey allows me to write sentences like that.)
But something always turns up, because the rich are infernally lucky. You will recall that the reason Robert married the American Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) was because the Crawleys needed a major cash infusion. This was the done thing at the turn of the 20th century: the merger of insolvent British aristocracy with prestige-seeking American capitalism.
By season 6 it’s the mid-1920s, as you can tell from the flapper outfits worn by Lady Mary and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael). It’s become impractical to maintain the huge house and the estate. Should they insist on keeping it, or should they get a smaller place in town and make do with just 40 bedrooms? It’s comforting to watch a show where the definition of poverty is several decimal places more than one’s own.
Two, the Crawleys never have to do housework. Everything is dusted and polished to a high gleam. Used teacups and glasses vanish. Every night, an elaborate meal appears on the table, and they don’t have to lift a finger to serve themselves. Lady Mary doesn’t even comb her own hair. Never mind the glamorous parties and jewelry — the self-cleaning house is our real fantasy.
All the cleaning and cooking is done by the servants, who do not demand pay increases, dental insurance and days off. When they do, Carson the butler (Jim Carter) raises his eyebrow at them in an intimidating fashion or Mrs. Hughes the housekeeper (Phyllis Logan) shakes her head in disapproval. The people downstairs do not ask questions like, “Why is it that I toil all my life but I can never hope to get the same privileges Lady Mary enjoys by simply existing?” Oh right, Branson (Allen Leech) the chauffeur did, but he was so cute that he married the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Of course you’ve noticed that when there’s any risk of the Crawley daughters living happily ever after, death intervenes.
Three, Downton Abbey is a soap opera, but since everyone has a British accent and a title, it can’t be trashy. (Soap has an important role in the ill-fated pregnancy of Lady Cora.) Why do you think it’s a big hit in the US? (May colonial mentality din sila doon.) Why do its actors regularly bag Emmy nominations that should’ve gone to The Americans or even Penny Dreadful? I binge-watched the first two seasons while dusting bookshelves and folding laundry and felt quite high end.
The Walking Dead has spawned a spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead. Will Downton Abbey do the same? I propose Lady Edith and the City, in which the “unmarriageable” daughter moves to London and hangs out with the Bright Young Things. The under-butler Thomas (Rob Collier-Smith) hasn’t had much to do since he stopped being evil; maybe he could star in a prequel to Queer As Folk. Cooking With Mrs. Patmore would be a gas, as would Project: Lady Mary, in which aspiring designers try to dress her and she dresses them down. Robert and Cora Crawley could finally move out of the house and settle in Beverly Hills, where they are horrified by their tacky showbiz neighbors in The Beverly Crawleys. And my favorite character, Isis the Labrador, whose derrière has opened the show for six seasons, could star in a new series of Downton Abbey told from the animals’ point of view.