I come here today to praise “Downton Abbey,” not to bury it, though I’ll try not to praise the popular public TV drama too much.
After all, there’s not any superlative I can offer that would be grander than the show’s placement on the PBS series “Masterpiece Classic.” Season 4 of “Downton Abbey” begins tonight and runs through Feb. 23. Check your local listings.
Is “Downton Abbey” a masterpiece or a classic? I can’t say yet, and neither, for that matter, can you. Those kinds of distinctions don’t become clear until a creative work has been around a few decades, at the very least, and “Downton Abbey” just launched in 2011.
But we all know, of course, that anything with a British accent tends to get placed on public television’s fast-track to cultural superiority. Our hunger for old World standards of breeding and tradition, in fact, rests within the very premise of “Downton,” which is grounded in the union of the fictional Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his American wife, Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern.
As the 20th century begins, the earl finds himself long on pedigree but short on cash for his struggling estate. That leads to a marriage of convenience with Cora, who’s flush with new American wealth but drawn to the social status she can secure by landing an aristocratic title. Despite the mercenary impulse nudging them down the wedding aisle, the earl and duchess have long ago discovered that they truly love each other, a nice development that tends to keep the exchanges between Robert and Cora in soft focus. That’s pretty much the prevailing vision of “Downton Abbey,” which raises the prospect of culture clash from time to time, but tends to dodge the darker possibilities of the story with happily-ever-after plot resolutions.
Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the relationship between the to-the-manor-born Crawley family and its downstairs household staff. Tonight’s Season 4 opener unfolds in the years after World War I, a bloodbath that inspired lots of working-class Englishmen to rethink the class boundaries that had defined their country for centuries.
We see occasional glimpses of that in the servants’ quarters — a footman, for instance, dreams of leaving the estate to make his own life in culinary arts — but for the most part, Downton’s staff faces the drudgery of servitude with smiling aplomb.
You can’t help wondering if this kind of romanticized docility is going to date pretty badly as the years roll along — in much the same way that the tone of “Gone With the Wind” now looks so uncomfortably like a period piece.
But “Downton Abbey,” for all its lavish historical detail, isn’t meant to be a documentary.
Which is why, I guess, I still end up embracing it as January’s biggest guilty pleasure.