Recently, I had the disconcerting experience of seeing Lady Mary Crawley on a Boeing 747. Costumed as a flight attendant, she was, and looking rather alarmed at the spectacle of that great Irish lout Liam Neeson heroically rampant in the passenger cabin with a pistol.
As well she might be. It was only a 30-second TV commercial for a new movie. However, it struck me as deeply wrong. I couldn’t decide which was more alarming: Lady Mary’s descent into acting, a profession only slightly more respectable in her world than prostitution, or her appearance in yet another reprise of “Air Force One,” a ludicrous thriller that ends with President Harrison Ford flinging a terrorist from the airplane’s cargo bay into the ocean.
For readers unfamiliar with “Masterpiece,” I should stipulate that Lady Mary Crawley, capably played by Michelle Dockery, is an imaginary character in “Downton Abbey,” the popular BBC series that recently completed its fourth season on PBS. Dockery herself is no more an aristocrat than I, having reportedly had to lose her East London cockney accent to win the role.
Yet the actress so fully incarnates the role of Lord Grantham’s elegant, acerbic eldest daughter that audiences may have difficulty accepting her in any other role. This must be a mixed blessing for Dockery. On one hand, she’s starring in the role of a lifetime. On the other, audiences confuse her with a fictional character now 125 years old.
Most actors would think it’s a nice problem to have. However, Lady Mary’s a widow because Dan Stevens, the actor who played her husband, Matthew, decided against returning to the series for a fourth season, necessitating his shocking death in an automobile accident.
But if “Downton Abbey” fans resist distinguishing between fact and fiction, they have nothing on the kinds of American political pundits for whom the very existence of imaginative art seems an affront. Seemingly incapable of what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief,” they reduce everything to a partisan cartoon.
And, yes, they come in all flavors. Over on Fox News, the popularity of a program about titled English aristocrats and their servants on a landed estate in Yorkshire 100 years ago proves the enduring popularity of inherited wealth. To Stuart Varney on “Fox & Friends,” Downton’s aristocrats are their kind of people: “They create jobs, for heaven’s sake. They’re classy; they’ve got style. And we love them. That show is wildly popular; it poses a threat to the left, doesn’t it?”
You’d sure think so, to judge by Salon’s indignant reduction of the drama to a Marxist cartoon. To Daniel D’Addario, “Downton Abbey” offends by being “stunningly tone-deaf. The show depicts a group of actual monsters in a manner that’s explicitly loving — and when the facts get in the way, they’re disposed of. ‘Downton Abbey’ is a show about how the world was straightforwardly better when an entrenched class system ruled.”
Facts in a fictional TV drama? What is this fellow talking about? Evidently his own indignation that “the show is intent on portraying positively a wealthy patriarchy.” Alas, “patriarchy” has become one of those dreadful cant terms that stops people thinking. So that when Lady Mary’s younger sister Sybil dies in childbirth after marrying the family’s Irish chauffer, Tom Branson, Salon deduces a moral: “The punishment for having a baby with Branson is death.”
Apparently, because “Downton Abbey’s” creator Julian Fellowes sits in the House of Lords, no other interpretation is possible. The terrible scene where Lord Grantham snobbishly refuses to allow his daughter to be hospitalized because the Yorkshire doctor who recommends it hasn’t the social standing of a London specialist who breezily assures him that all’s well escaped D’Addario’s indignant notice.
But the real prize goes to George F. Will. To the Washington Post’s resident pecksniff, it’s “fitting that PBS offers ‘Downton Abbey’ to its disproportionately progressive audience.”
Why? Because, contrary to Salon, Will thinks Democrats are secret snobs who yearn for hereditary titles. “And if progressivism prevails,” he writes, “the United States will be Downton Abbey: Upstairs, the administrators of the regulatory state will, with a feudal sense of noblesse oblige, assume responsibility for the lower orders downstairs, gently protecting them from ‘substandard’ health-insurance policies, school choice, gun ownership,” etc.
On the actual PBS drama, it’s the toffs upstairs who can scarcely dress themselves, much less retrieve a document potentially ruinous to the Prince of Wales without the occasionally ruthless intervention of the lower orders.
Of course, one could argue with equal cogency that the popularity of, say, “The Sopranos” signifies that Republicans secretly admire mobsters, and would have their rivals whacked if they could get away with it.
However, the real story is that literal-minded drudges of every political persuasion are made terribly uneasy by the imaginative arts, and the scary anarchy of “Once upon a time …”
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Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”. You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.