The Secret Appeal of ‘Downton Abbey’

Clint and I have recently begun watching Downton Abbey, and we were surprised to see this new Dalrymple essay in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal outlining the show’s appeal to Americans. Dalrymple has never owned a television and has always seemed happily unaware of its charms. Where, how and why did he watch it?
In any case, he attributes Americans’ embrace of the show to their unspoken appreciation for class distinctions, which are supposedly not in keeping with the country’s founding principles:

“Downton Abbey” comes, then, as a relief to Americans, in the way that a politically incorrect remark comes as a relief when something that’s true has been exiled from polite speech. Class does not just speak its name in “Downton Abbey,” it screams it.

22 thoughts on “The Secret Appeal of ‘Downton Abbey’

  1. Ken Mueller

    The good doctor is often right but I think he is seeing his own reflection on this one. Most Americans don’t recognize even screaming class warfare—check on Dem tactics this election year.
    I think we enjoy a good story with likable and unlikeable characters both upstairs and downstairs who sometimes develop their characters. And of course there is always the sheer goodness of the BBC outside of the news of course.

  2. Kurt

    Actually, assuming you have the same opinion of the BBC that Dalrymple has, you’ll be glad to know that Downton Abbey is produced by ITV (Independent Television), which is one of the BBC’s main competitors.

  3. Clinton

    Ken, I agree that quality is the ultimate consideration, but personally I also like the insight into the aristocracy, as well as the historical aspect (immediately pre-WW1). But yes, I wouldn’t watch it if it were not good.

  4. Colin

    Isn’t the American obsession with good teeth essentially a class thing? (ie if somebody has bad teeth they’re lacking self-respect, don’t want to better themselves etc.)

  5. Clinton

    Colin, I’m not sure where you get that idea about Americans (and it is one of the more bizarre misconceptinos about us I have heard), but I can assure you it isn’t true.

  6. Clinton

    I guess so, but I don’t want to speak for him. To me this just points out the difficulty of drawing conclusions about cultural differences. If someone believes something so strange about his own country, how hard is it to delineate differences in foreign countries?

  7. JKE

    Colin, I must report that I’m one American whom some would consider to be obsessed with his teeth. I have a four- stage cleaning regimen that I do twice a day. I want to avoid the dentist at all costs!


  8. Gavin

    There certainly is an impression in the UK, I think, that Americans are much more into their dental care than the English are! You also see shining white teeth on no end of US celebrities and newsreaders too. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, maybe we’re a bit lax over here. (I also went to the dentist there and they had no end of high tech kit and were very efficient.)

    Extending this, while I was in Florida I noticed a massive amount of advertising on the TV telling people they might be ill, might get ill (in American, sick) soon, and hence needed all manner of drugs and potions. It was relentless. And the pharmacies were massive, full of all kinds of things. I wonder if you guys think this is a bit overdone out there?

    Of course, in the USA with the private healthcare, cynics would say it is in a doctor’s interests to persuade a patient they’re ill, whereas over here, in my experience they can’t wait to get you out of the surgery because the NHS is overloaded.

    Please don’t take my comments the wrong way, by the way, as I am generally a very big fan of the US and these are just personal observations!

  9. Jackson K. Eskew

    Gavin, you’re absolutely right about the prevalence of legalized drug pusher advertisements here in America. It’s frighteningly like Huxley’s Brave New World. This is related to today’s pathologization of unhappiness, as Dalrymple writes about in his excellent essay, Forced Smiles. Do have a look at it.

  10. Clinton

    Interesting, Gavin. Maybe there is some truth in Colin’s remark then. I didn’t know other developed countries were less concerned with their teeth than us. Although I think the part about lacking self-esteem or the desire for self-improvement would still be overstating the case.

    Regardless, feel free to disagree with me or to criticize Americans all you want; we are certainly far from perfect. You are absoutely right about what some call “the health scare industry”. In additon to the pharmaceutical industry, a lot of this is also driven by predatory lawyers. A few hours watching late night television would probably convince anyone that any slight sense of fatigue is a sign of one of two maladies called mesothelioma or fibromyalgia, prompting the need to sue your employer for placing you in harm’s way.

    BTW, everyone who would like to discuss these or other Dalrymple-related issues should click the “Forum” link to head over to Gavin’s Dalrymple forum. I haven’t spent nearly as much time there as I’d like, but just blogging his pieces here keeps me busy.

  11. Gavin

    This stuff seems designed to breed a nation of hypochondriacs, Clinton, and it reminds me of Dalrymple’s “The Examined Life”. I suppose it is intended to do exactly that, for the pursuit of profit. But then people just shouldn’t believe all the rubbish that is fed to them. Advertising over here is pretty dire, very dumbed down. It compounds bad stereotypes and encourages anxieties. During the daytime we have a fair few of these “infomercials”, which I have seen over there too. Plenty of financial ones preying on old people (or seniors, as I know they are known there!). But we have far fewer of these pharmaceutical ads which seemed wall to wall in the daytime there.

    While we are on the topic of differences, I think our supermarket food is generally better here too. You don’t get any things injected with hormones etc and there is a great deal of variety. Out there, there might be just “potatoes” on offer, whereas here there are dozens of varieties for different purposes. We also have loads of different cheeses etc. Mind you, my observations are limited to my experiences in Florida.

    I think you do a great job just keeping up with all of TD’s output here. Your site is a primary resource for my own Dalrymple reading and, as you say, all are welcome to visit the forum too.

  12. Gavin

    Jackson, thanks – I will seek that out and read it. I don’t think I’ve heard of that one before, although TD has certainly many times written of the “pathologization of unhappiness”, as you very well put it.

  13. Colin

    I don’t want to over-state it. I have only one “testimony”, and it’s that of a guy from California. Here’s what he wrote to me:

    “In America, having bad teeth means that not only were you raised by goats but, now you’re an adult with the means to fix it, you haven’t the self-respect to do it.”

    His implication was that this is a view widely held, at least within his area of the country. I can only go on the evidence presented to me. Loads of people say that Americans are obsessed with teeth – while American programmes (like Family Guy) say that Brits have terrible teeth.

  14. Clinton

    Colin, after reading your and Gavin’s comments I can see the truth in your statement, although I think there is some exaggeration in your friend’s original comment (which, yes, is obviously all you have to go on).

    Anyway, sorry, I think I’ve made a mountain out of a molehill with my nitpicking. Please don’t be shy about sharing any criticisms of my country. I find myself so often forwarding Dalrymple’s criticisms of England (about which I am sometimes uncomfortable, not being English) that I can’t justifiably refuse to hear it. And we clearly have our failures and areas for improvement!

  15. Gavin

    I appreciate Clinton’s point that although Americans are more into their “dental care”, the classist judgements may be overstated by this particular guy.

    I reckon the Americans generally do have much better teeth than the British. But mind you the British seem to generally have better teeth the the Japanese! It was a while before I noticed a trend with their teeth. There is a even a thread on it here: Weird.

    Clinton, the thing about TD’s observations about Britain is that, in my view and experience, they’re all valid! So feel free to post, and we’ll do the same 😉 I just hope America doesn’t sink into the welfare state that we (as in the whole of Europe) are now in.

  16. Colin

    I did wonder if my friend was exaggerating – he is a neocon and quite obsessed with “improvement”.

    To be honest the teeth thing was just a casual anecdote. I’d be more interested in discussing (learning about) class in America, as a general thing. I know very little about it, not enough to have an intellectual grasp of the matter, and that rather irritates me!

    When people say that there simply isn’t a class system in America, I find that extremely difficult to believe – not least because I can see it in American TV shows. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Chandler upper-middle-class, Ross middle-class, and Joey working-class?

  17. Clinton

    I never watched Friends, so I can’t answer that part.

    It depends on what you mean by a class “system”. Of course there are classes in America, in the sense that there are different income levels, lifestyles, attitudes and opinions on what behavior is proper, etc.

    But no, there is absolutely no class SYSTEM, if by that you mean an institutional structure/set of rules/ limitations/etc that keep people within their own income or lifestyle group.

    Yes, people who go to Harvard and Yale tend to make more money than people who do not. People who succeed in politics tend to have gone to the elite Ivy League schools. (Ronald Reagan was denigrated by the elite for being one of the few modern American presidents not to have attended an elite university.) People who are born wealthy are probably more likely to go to the best schools and to stay wealthy as they mature and therefore rise or fall on their own merits. But all these facts are in my opinion simply the natural advantages of having a head start in life, not indicators of any structural (either official as in governmental, or unofficial as in cultural or social) impediments to changing one’s class.

    There is tremendous income mobility in America. I think it is easier here than any other place on Earth to rise or fall in income, social status, etc. Various income analyses have shown that an American in the lowest quintile of the income distribution is more likely to be in the uppermost quintile 10 years later than to still be in the bottom quintile.

    Not to reveal too much personally, but Steve and I are in a much higher position in the income distribution today than that we were born into. Our father grew up in the 1940s and 1950s without electricity. His sons build high-tech financial analysis systems for large corporations.

    There is enormous admiration in America for those who rise from the bottom to the middle or top, the old “rags to riches” idea. (See Horatio Alger.) Generally speaking, Americans have great compassion for those on the bottom who are hard working, and great disdain for those on the bottom who are not. In other words, the defining characteristic is not income, but attitude. I always marvel at the universal proactive friendliness of the employees at the corporations where I consult toward the (generally Latino immigrant) housekeepers who walk among the cubicles emptying trash cans in the evening.

    Not to sound jingoistic, but Arthur C. Brooks published an excellent book a couple of years ago called “Who Really Cares” demonstrating that Americans on average give 3 times as much to charity as the French, 7 times as much as the Germans, and 14 times as much as the Italians. Charitable giving is a way of life here, and almost every group to which one might belong (a fraternity or sorority, baseball team, and especially church group) organizes charitable fundraising events.

    If those characters in Friends were of different classes, what does it say that they were st

  18. Gavin

    Your post really distilled what I like about America, Clinton, and you can see that these attitudes built that country. Here, sadly, people are more inclined to simply envy the success of others. I think we need the stoicism, work ethic and national pride that is evident in much of America if we are to ever get ourselves back on our feet.

    (You also rightly mention the unparalleled generosity of America – a point carefully ignored by the liberal left over here.)


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