Downton Abbey Revisited

By Claudio Iván Remeseira | Posted Jan. 28, 2013, at 03.55 p.m. ET. Last Updated, Sunday, September 22, 2013, at 8:45 p.m. ET

Not-so-Modern Family


College students would be baffled to see the United States listed in a Postcolonial studies syllabus as a "subaltern subject". The U.S. is not a subjugated country but the world's imperial power, not an oppressed nation but an oppressor one, right? So does the conventional campus knowledge go. Yet the unabashed fascination of vast swaths of the American public for all things British, from the Oxbridge accent to the Royal family weddings, makes you wonder what is all that Revolutionary War and 4th of July fuzz really about. 

The latest manifestation of this lingering colonial mindset is the craze for the period TV show Downton Abbey, which last week won the Screen Actors Guild Award as Outstanding Ensemble in a Drama Series. What makes its triumph even more remarkable is the impressive All-American lineup of defeated competitors: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland, and Boardwalk Empire.

In 2011, according to Wikipedia, Downton Abbey became the  international television series to receive the largest number of nominations in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awardstwenty-seven in total. During its first season, the show was "the most watched television series on both ITV and PBS, and subsequently became the most successful British costume drama series since Brideshead Revisited. By the third season, it had become one of the most widely watched television shows in the world."

The SAG jurors' vote is a perfectly democratic reflection of the audience, a decision largely shared across demographic, racial, and social lines. Everybody seems to like Downton Abbey. Your coworker likes it. The guy on your Facebook thread likes it. Nerds naturally like it, but trendies like it too. Middle-aged people and the younger ones like it. Even the First Lady likes it.
  
I understand the feeling: I grew up in a pretty Anglophile country. Despite the almost two centuries-old brawl over the sovereignty of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, which 30 years ago led to a war that still strains the relationship between the two nations, Argentina and the U.K. are connected by strong and lasting bonds. 

Argentina's world-famous food staple, beef, was developed through cattle breeding to satisfy the taste of the British consumer. Our introduction to the African-American foundation of rock & pop music was originally provided by English, not American bands. Even today, almost a century after the big economic partnership between the two countries came to an end, Argentina's most socially valued spoken English style is the British Received Pronounciation (the "true English," as my mother says).

The most fervent passion of them all, fútbol, is of course a British import. Argentina, the country that gave Lionel Messi, Diego Armando Maradona, Alfredo Di Stéfano and scores of other great football players to the world, was home to the sport's first national association outside the British islands. Even the country's most popular teams have English names: Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing Club. Argentines speak Spanglish without even knowing they do.

Curiously enough, soccer and other quintessentially British sports like cricket and rugby didn't take root in U.S. soil. But that's a topic for another column.

Back to Downton Abbey: Yes, I understand the fascination. And I share it, too. A tale of landed aristocracy in trouble, which is spared the unbearable trauma of eviction from their centuries-old lovely country estate by the unexpected generosity of a middle-class lawyer who prizes his puritanical ethics above his prejudiced wife's loyalty to social hierarchy and traditionwho cannot relate to that story? Seriously. Who? Think of it.

Just three of four generations ago (the time depicted in the series), most people were born in the countryside. In many parts of Europe, that meant towns or villages that were generally under the control of some sort of aristocrats of the kind described in the series (or were pilleged and killed by Zarists thugs, but that's also another, tragic story). Many of our immigrant ancestors came from places like those.

The storyline of working- and middle-class newcomers taking over a retreating ruling class, yet harboring deep inside a guilty pleasure for all the trappings and privileges of that same people they were displacing from History's front page, warmly resonates in many of us. And the phenomenon is not restricted to English-language countries.

The 1980s were also the heyday of custom shows in Spain's public television. Francisco Franco's 36-year-long dictatorship had ended in 1975, and the country was living through the exhilarating post-censorship period known as el destape (literaly, "Taking the lid off"). Amongst the many great TV shows describing the conflicting worlds of the gentry and their servants were Los pazos de Ulloa, based on a novel by Emilia Pardo Bazán (1852-1921), and Los gozos y las sombras, based on another novel, by Gonzalo Torrente Ballester (1910-1999). 

Both authors were born in Galicia, the North-Western region of Spain that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries expelled the largest number of migrants in the country's history. Among them, my paternal grandparents.

I was a fan of Los gozos y las sombras. In those years, Argentina was also coming out of the long night of dictatorship, and the triangular love story played on the screen by Charo Lopez, Eusebio Poncela and Carlos Larrañaga represented the wholesome collective drama of a nation trapped between its violent past and its ominous, still uncertain future. That was the drama of many Latin American countries back then.

The series also allowed me to see for the first time many of the things my grandmother Rosa had described to me in vivid detail since I was a child: The village, the old market, the houses of "the rich ones," the joys and sorrows of the peasants, the church festivities, the stories of those who took the long journey across the ocean and left their parents and siblings behind, never to see them again.

I once asked my grandmother if she missed Spain. She calmly replied, in her mellowed voice: "No. I go back there ever night." Watching Los gozos y las sombras was my way of partaking in that trip with her.

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