I finally broke down last week and started watching Downton Abbey. Many friends had told me how much they loved it, and I believed them all. I just never had gotten around to starting. After breezing through two seasons in a week, though, I now recognize that there is one thing they could have told me that would have made me watch much sooner:
Downton Abbey is basically Gossip Girl, 1910s English version.
You think you’re watching highbrow television – it’s on PBS! And they’re wearing period clothing and speaking with an accent! But then you start watching, and you realize under the facade of period clothing and English accents, you’re really watching a soap opera. A melodramatic, sometimes batshit crazy soap opera.
Spoilers ahead, obviously, but only through season 2 of Downton. Please don’t spoil me on season 3. I’ve avoided most of my usual entertainment sites this week for that reason.
The premise of both shows is simple: watch really rich people wearing gorgeous clothes sit around eating and drinking and discussing their problems – most of which, in the grand scheme of things, are not all that terrible. Oh, and there are also some other people who need to work for a living, but really, isn’t it fabulous to be rich?
Instead of the texts and blogs of the 21st century Upper East Side, we have the telegraphs and letters of the early 20th century England. In place of a Park Avenue penthouse, there’s a sprawling estate. The differences pretty much end there, though – these rich kids are driven everywhere, spend their lives attending parties and charity events and fancy dinners, and many of their concerns involve what other people are saying about them. Sure, World War I creeps in and kind of spoils the party for a bit, but they still have fancy dresses and expensive wine, much in the way the UES kids were barely touched by the recession.
This much is true for both the Crawleys and the van der Woodsens of the world: appearance and money are the only things that matter to rich people, gossip can be used both for and against you, and there isn’t any problem so large that a big fancy party can’t solve. The drama of the lives of really, really rich people is fun to watch, no matter what century or country it’s taking place in.
And what’s more, in addition to the similarities in theme and plot, I can’t help comparing each of the lovely characters on each show to each other. Basically, Mary and Matthew are Serena and Dan – the central couple in each show, though probably the most boring. She’s a princess who everyone loves, though she’s not exactly a great person, and he’s a pretentious outsider from Manchester/Brooklyn who has values and all that shit. They want to be together, but they can’t, and then they can, and then they can’t, and then they finally get married, sparing the viewer from sitting through six seasons of that crap. If only Downton Abbey would end by revealing that Matthew secretly has been feeding gossip to the London newspapers and manipulating everyone all along.
Cora and Robert are Lily and Rufus – she had the money, he married her to get it, and now he basically sits around the house all day. Sadly, though, I have never seen Richard make waffles.
Scheming sometimes footman/sometimes valet/sometimes soldier Thomas is basically a less interesting version of Georgina. Poor Edith, who never seems to get any and is always left out, is pretty much every one of Blair’s minions, sending off letters to the Turkish ambassador like it’s a cellphone pic of Jenny and Nate kissing.
Even the plots are interchangeable! Oh no, the Crawleys have lost all their money and may be in financial ruin! Check in with Nate Archibald, he dealt with all that. Say your man is in trouble – you’ll do a much better job investigating than the police, right? The ladies of the Upper East Side taught us that on a regular basis. Need to make a deal to save the ones you love? Blair Waldorf is a pro at that (sleep with uncle to save Chuck’s hotel? check. make a pact with God to save Chuck’s life? check.)
Speaking of… there’s really no one on Downton that can compare to Blair and Chuck. There are a lot of things I love about my favorite characters Sybil and Branson, but they don’t even come close to my Chair devotion (though perhaps both couples might have a thing for sex in the back of a car). The Dowager Countess, much like Blair, gets the best lines, and I could totally see her scolding an underclassman in 100 years for thinking she could wear tights as pants. But alas, GG has the advantage over Downton in my mind, if only for the Chair factor. Perhaps power-hungry scheming teenagers in couture is a product of the 21st century.