You’re Invited to Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey.

For some of us, it’s what Disneyworld is to kids.

And starting on May 28, as Season Four gets underway on Vision TV, we’re invited back to Lord and Lady Grantham’s stately pile to share the fortunes and misfortunes of the family and their downstairs staff.

Season Four will let us know how Lady Mary is faring as a widow. The accidental death of her husband Matthew Crawley that concluded the previous season was broadcast in England at the end of 2012. Abbey aficionados complained that it ruined their Christmas.

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We Abbey fans are like that. The show makes it seem as if the Granthams are our family, too. And if that makes us feel like toffs for an hour or two, well, that’s a bit of all right, as the Brits would say.

And yet the genius of the series is that we’re also made to feel like we’re part of the staff below stairs. We respect the wisdom and compassion of head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes and also enjoy the way she manipulates Mr. Carson the butler, gently puncturing his pomposity and teasing out the best in him, which is his integrity and good heart.

(Want to know if you qualify as a genuine Downton Abbey fanatic? You qualify if you know the first names of Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson. Answers are on the next page.)

cast-daisyAnd then there’s Daisy, the kitchen maid, whose love life and yearnings are every bit as complex as those of Lady Rose, the irrepressible young Grantham relative who kicks up her heels and not a little controversy in London.

The interplay of aristocrats and servants in British television drama and its popularity has a precedence, of course. Boomers who remember being entranced with Upstairs, Downstairs decades ago (and getting caught up in it again in recent re-runs) are thrilled with this updated version of two sides of the same coin.

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As one observer said astutely, family and the workplace are the best sources of drama, and in these upstairs/downstairs narratives, we get to experience both.

There’s been lot of speculation about why this series is so popular, especially on this side of the Atlantic. Devotees include Jimmy Fallon, Reba McEntire, Katy Perry, Harrison Ford, hip-hop singers Jay Electronica and Sean “Diddy” Combs and Michelle Obama who invited Lord and Lady Grantham, otherwise known as Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, to the White House.

The simplest explanation is that North Americans have always been fascinated by English royalty and aristocracy. When that’s presented as a handsome, period soap opera with the added bonus of the lives of the people who serve them, it’s irresistible to many of us.

And it really is like Disneyworld.

“The geographic, historical and cultural gulf between modern America and Edwardian Britain gives the milieu of Downton Abbey an exotic, theme-park quality,” suggested the British periodical, The New Statesman.

Not everyone is enamored.

In the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg attacked Downton’s “blizzards of anachronisms, its absurd soap-operatics, and its Oprah-style oversharing between aristos and servants.”

Daniel Day-Lewis says he’s never watched it because “that is why I left England.”

And British-born historian Simon Schama, writing in the Daily Beast, called it “a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery.”

As for me, I can’t wait to be served my next helping from that ‘steaming, silvered tureen.”

(It’s Mrs. Elsie Hughes and Mr. Charles Carson.)

DOWNTON ABBEY, SEASON 4 CANADIAN PREMIERE ON VISION TV: Wed., May 28 at 9pm EST/6 PST. Plus enter to win a 7-day trip for 2 to London!