The British period series Downton Abbey is all about high drama. Within the walls of this fated house, allegiances are formed and dissolved, secrets and lies are told, rules are bent and broken, and Anna and Mr. Bates will simply never be left in peace. I thought it was over the top when Lady Mary's first lover died in her arms, but when a burn victim returned from the war claiming to be a Crawley cousin who had supposedly died on the Titanic but was actually suffering from amnesia in Canada, I knew we had entered full-on soap opera territory.
The problem is that the real appeal of the show lies in nostalgia for a bygone era, with all its accompanying delights: the gorgeous clothing, the multi-course meals, the simple rituals of daily life. And, of course, the prescribed social roles of the pre-modern era, fascinating for us but probably not so delightful for the real people relegated to life "below stairs." All the scandals and histrionics of Downton Abbey only distract from the beauty and romance of the world so lovingly recreated (or reimagined) by the artists behind the show's production design. The writers, with their cheap tricks, only muddy it up.
What if the writers, like the designers, focused on the small details of British life in the early 20th century? What if it was a little more Jane Austen and a little less One Life to Live? I think we would care more then, simply because we would be able to imagine ourselves there, and that's really the whole point, isn't it?
Personally, I enjoy imagining myself as an aristocratic lady living in a countryside estate in Edwardian England. Here is how I would spend my days:
Reading every great book ever written.
Becoming fluent in French.
Writing copious letters to far-flung friends.
Eyeing cute footmen and stable boys.
Changing in and out of stunning dresses.
Taking long walks on the grounds.
Going to London for the "season."
Traveling for months at a time on the continent.
Doing my hair.
When the war came, I would bravely volunteer to nurse wounded soldiers.
I might take a lover, but I would do my best to pick one who wasn't going to die in bed.
And I'm sure I would spend a lot of time looking for a husband, because that's what a girl did before she had the right to vote.
I would also have a life full of all the mess and joy and pain of any human life, but this one would unfold against the backdrop of a highly flawed yet elegant society, now gone forever and never to return.
I ask the makers of Downton Abbey: Isn't that enough?