How can this be? A hit TV series and pop culture phenomenon in which half the female cast wear little if any makeup and sport hair so bad it's worse than 80s hair? Can we say O'Brien? Can you believe that the actress who plays her is pictured above? (O'Brien, we hardly knew ye.) But it's a credit to Siobhan Finneran that looks don't matter on Downton Abbey -- only acting chops.
Downton Abbey is like gummy vitamins -- it goes down so easily that you may not realize it's got stuff that's good for you. At the heart of this story about the Grantham family estate, with the lords and ladies upstairs and the servants below, are a handful of feminist themes that remind us that the rights we take for granted are ones that were not around at the time this period piece takes place. Women couldn't vote, women couldn't inherit property or a title, and if a woman was pregnant out of wedlock, welcome to the streets. (What the Dowager Countess might have made of Teen Mom would be something to consider.)
The women are the stars of the show -- even if the men seem to be in control -- because for the most part they rise above their travails. Sure, we root for Mary to overthrow the entailment and enjoy a bedroom romp without bringing shame down on the family, Gwen to get her secretarial job, Sybil to become a nurse and marry Tom the chauffeur, Edith to drive that tractor and write that column, and Isobel to right every injustice in the world including getting Mr. Moseley's father to win the Grantham Cup for his roses.
We root for them because we know these battles have already been won. At a time when women are open to criticism for wanting contraceptives covered, voting for a President who won't put them in binders, trying to fly around the world and maintain peace, and entering Congress in record numbers, it's good to know that somewhere in a world of beauty, privilege, fresh cut flowers and breakfast in bed, even wealthy women slim beyond reason have it hard.
While the women are busy trying to better themselves and the world around them, the men of Downton Abbey are acting like spoiled children.
Lord Grantham is busy dreaming of diddling the new maid, moping that he can't really go to war, and now getting his daughter killed because he had to pal around with another old boy from the club who was a doctor with more ego than medical common sense.
Thomas is trying to screw up Bates' life, get out of service by becoming a medic, get out of the war by getting his hand shot off, screw up Bates' life once again, make everyone's life miserable and throw his weight around, make a go of it in the black market, clean up the mess in the storage area he made after the black market thing failed, find the dog he hid so he could find her and impress Lord Grantham, get into the new footman's pants.
Matthew is moaning about honor and not taking Lavinia's father's money under false pretenses, moaning about his sperm count, moaning about the mismanagement of the estate.
I could go on.
Notice how the women save the men on Downton Abbey? Cora marries Lord Grantham and gives him a huge influx of cash to save the estate. Mary finds out that Daisy mailed Lavinia's letter so that Matthew can take his huge influx of cash and save the estate with a clear conscience.
Anna finds out that Bates wasn't responsible for the theft he was charged with. Anna finds out that Bates wasn't responsible for the murder he was convicted of; a neighbor saw that Bates' wife had pie crust under her nails, so she made the arsenic pie that poisoned her. (Earth to Batesie: it's not honorable to keep quiet and not implicate your conniving, grasping wife. It's stupid.)
Mrs. Hughes doesn't marry the farmer so Carson's perfectly-ordered household won't be upset by her departure and he won't have a heart attack. (He does anyway.) Jane quits so she won't "distract" Lord Grantham. (At least he still has his dog.)
And I could go on.
If you're not a fan, your head is reeling. If you're a fan, you're nodding your head.
For every powerful man, there's a woman who makes his success possible. For Lord Grantham, there's five -- his wife, daughters, and his mother. For Carson the butler, there's at least five. There is no throne at Downton Abbey -- after all, they're nobles, not royals. But if there were, women would be the power behind it.
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