Sunday, March 30, 2014

Playing to a Modern Audience: The Decline of Believability in Downton Abbey

Audiences today are used to television revolving around large quantities of action or drama, sometimes even both. Most of the shows on television today are shaped by and mimic the fast paced lives of the people watching them. There is never a dull moment; the viewers are on the edges of their seats waiting to see if the protagonist will make it to the end of the episode. Many of these shows will start with a realistic premise, characters, and plot, but as it becomes more popular and gains a larger audience the producers heighten the drama to unrealistic and melodramatic levels to please their growing audience who are accustomed to drama centered programming. Downon Abbey is one of the shows which falls under this category. It begins as a period piece depicting a realistic flashback into the history of Victorian England, but as the show progresses and the producers feel the pressure to appease a rapidly growing audience the show focuses more on drama and less on historical accuracy. The producers of Downton Abbey begin to deviate from strict historical accuracy in later seasons due to the assumed belief that modern audiences need entertainment revolving around excessive action and drama.

The opening season of Downton Abbey is a good on screen representation of life on an aristocratic estate in Victorian England. The issues addressed in this season were the same ones that families of the time period were dealing with.  The main issue the family faces during this season comes in the form of Matthew Crawley who is the next in line to inherit both the estate of Downton and Lord Grantham’s title. However, he is a very distant cousin and unacquainted with the family. This causes a slight rift between him and the Grantham’s because instead of their eldest daughter, Mary, inheriting the money, property, and title it goes to Matthew the distant cousin who no one has met.. There is the slim possibility that the money and property could be separated from the title and given to Mary, but under no circumstances could she get the Earl’s title as well. In her article Joanne Bailey discusses women bringing property to marriage, but it no longer belonging to them once they are settled in the marriage. All the property and possessions automatically transfer to their husband. Women had no right to possessions or property. Everything would pass on to the next male kin whether he was a son, cousin, nephew, or grandson. Women had next to no rights to property, (Bailey 363-4). In season one the Grantham’s are forced to cope with the reality of a stranger taking possession of the precious estate of Downton upon the death of Lord Grantham. This dilemma they face is one that many families would have had to face at the time. The producers of the show did well in portraying a realistic over-arching conflict for season one that fits well with struggles people faced during the time period.

Another accurate representation of the time period is the interactions between the servants and the family,
particularly the portrayal of the two servants Bates and Anna. Most commonly servants and their employers maintained a distant and professional relationship. Only servants who were at the top of the hierarchy had regular interactions with the families who employed them. Anna and Bates are both the types of higher up servants who did have daily interactions with the family. When Bates is hired on the viewer finds out he'd fought in the war alongside Lord Grantham, which is the reason he is taken on. When it is discovered that Bates has a bad leg he is still allowed to stay on the staff because of this history with Lord Grantham when in most cases he would have been let go due to inability to complete all tasks required of him. Anna also has a slightly more intimate relationship with her mistress. She steps in as a lady’s maid for the daughters of Lord Grantham. Every morning she wakes up and helps dress them for the day then at the end of the day she helps them get ready for bed. There are large amounts of interaction that go on between Anna and the daughters, especially Mary. Because of this the family is more invested in Anna’s day to day life and she is likewise for them. She hears the gossip that goes on in the house, knows the thoughts and desires of Mary and the other sisters. Despite this window into each other’s lives a level of professionalism is maintained. Anna is still a servant and Mary is still her mistress. With both Anna and Bates the audience sees a tad more intimacy between them and their employers, but only to an extent. It is still understood that they are from vastly different classes and cannot communicate as equals. There is a level of intimacy that must be sustained to keep it accurate for the era, and the producers toe that line well.

Later seasons do not uphold the same historical accuracy kept in season one. Mary and Matthew’s positions and relationship becomes very unrealistic and dramatic. As a television show it is understandable for more drama and conflicts to arise in the lives of the characters than what would happen in real life to maintain the interest of the audience. Without drama no one would watch; however, with such a vast cast at their disposal the producers limit themselves by only focuses on a handful of characters. They end up making the lives of the few audience's favorite characters a series of unfortunate events. Mary and Matthew are one of the couples who get extensive amounts of bad luck. This couple never gets a moment to breathe. As the seasons progress Matthew loses his ability to walk then gains it back. He falls in love with another woman, Lavina, then falls back in love with Mary while that young woman is dying. He inherits Lavina’s money and refuses to use it to save Downton which has once again fallen in danger of going under because he is plagued with guilt of betraying Lavina by loving Mary. This refusal causes distress in his relationship with Mary. She believes him to be selfish. He agrees to use the money for Downton. Their relationship ends in the sudden death of Matthew on his way from the hospital to Downton to announce the birth of his and Mary’s newly born son. A small number of these things happening to Mary and Matthew would be logical and believable, but all on top of each other makes for very melodramatic lives for the characters. The fact that Matthew inherits not only Lord Grantham’s money, but also the money of Lavina’s father merely because he was half in love with the man’s daughter is not realistic. It was out of the ordinary for him to get the money and estate of Downton alone, but to add another very substantial fortune make the circumstance become less than believable. Finally when Mary and Matthew have settled all of their troubles he ends up dead. This also happens soon after the youngest sister dies after the birth of her daughter, making Matthew’s death also less likely and realistic. The fact that the Grantham’s ends up with two single parents living under its roof in the matter of a year is not something that would have happened. It is clear in the lives of Matthew and Mary that the producers are pushing for heavy drama instead of realistic happenings.

Anna and Bates also have a decline in accuracy as the seasons go on. As stated earlier there is already a
slightly more intimate relationship between Anna, Bates, and their employers. Bates has a history with Lord Grantham. As a lady’s maid Anna hears all the gossip of the family and spends large amounts of time with the daughters of the house. Despite these facts there is still a level of professionalism maintained between the family and the servants. As the seasons progress this level of distance which had been previously maintained falls to the wayside. Anna and Bates get married and Bates gets convicted for the murder of his wife. The Granthams leap to his rescue doing anything and everything they can for Anna and Bates. The family, particularly Mary, inquires frequently into the situation of Anna and Bates. In numerous episodes it is stated that the family follows the matter closely, even by Sybil and Branson who live off the estate in Ireland. This sudden depth in the relationships between the servants and their employers reaches unrealistic levels. It could be argued that Lord Grantham and his family are merely quite generous, but even generosity has limits and in these later seasons that limit is surpassed. Employers don't have the time to invest in the lives of all their servants the way the show makes it seem could happen because many estates the size of Downton would have staff upwards of twenty to twenty-four servants, and many times a large portion of the staff would be employed at multiple estates or would not be live-in servants, (Higgs 204). There is not the level of intimacy in these big estates between employers and servants as the show suggests. The show does not account for this, making it seem like it is logical and realistic for an employer to have such stakes in the happenings and the lives of his employees. This would not have been realistic for the era.

The opening season of Downton Abbey is successful in portraying an accurate representation of life on an estate in the Victorian era, but as the show progresses the producers lean toward heightened drama over historical reality to please their audience. Season one depicts real struggles such as that between Mary and Matthew and settling the upset feelings about who will inherit the title and the estate. Along with realistic struggles there are believable relationships between the servants and their employers. With Anna and Bates their are just the right levels of intimacy between them and their respective mistress and master to allow exploration into their lives while still maintaining realistic interactions. Later into the seasons however, the producers of the show allow these interactions to slip into strange levels of intimacy between the Grantham and Bates families. Meanwhile Mary and Matthew go through a slue of issues which end in Mary as a widow. by favoring these types of story lines the producers are opting for more drama and less accuracy in the show. In doing this they are playing to their audience. Knowing that the people watching their show are used to programs that never give you a breath of calm they strive to mimic these other shows in hopes of keeping their audience. By believing that the audience watching Downton Abbey prefers shows brimming with drama the producers fill the show and the lives of the characters with unrealistic levels of it in order to keep their audiences watching and consequently lower the quality of the show. Downton Abbey suffers because the producers are worried more about playing to the tastes of their audience than keeping the high quality the show began with in season one.


Bailey, Joanne. "Favoured or Oppressed? Married Women, Property and ‘coverture’ in England, 1660–1800." Cambridge Journals. Cambridge University Press, Dec. 2002. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

Higgs, Edward. "Domestic Servants and Households in Victorian England." JSTOR. Taylor and Francis Ltd., 2006. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.


  1. I think that you picked a really interesting topic for this blog post. Looking at the historical accuracy of a show is something very different, and it's not something that I really would have thought of while watching this show. I think that you make a very good point by saying that they feel the need to make television shows very melodramatic all the time, and often over the top in order to keep audiences entertained. I think that this is disappointing, because while some good drama is always fun, it would also be refreshing to watch a show like Downton Abbey where they could keep the show true to its time period, while still being interesting.

  2. I thought this was an interesting post because I loved Downton Abbey. I agree with you and am also disappointed in the turn that the show has taken throughout the seasons. It has become more of a soap opera than anything else. I think your points about Matthew and Mary’s situations are particularly strong. The rollercoaster that they go through throughout the series got pretty tiring at times. You also make good points about the sudden deaths. While sudden in the show one could technically argue that the deaths were “months” apart. One season of Downton Abbey can span up to two years and not the typical one-year. But still it is a little much for those viewing it. Another thing to note is that Matthew and Sybil died because they wanted to leave the show. But Downton definitely put an overdramatic spin on it by killing them off. The realistic aspects that made me want to watch the show were lost in favor of melodrama and clearly I am not the only one that thought this. An interesting point that could have been brought up was if viewership has declined, or maybe even risen in response to these changes. All I know is that because of the declining realistic nature of the show it lost me as a fan.


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