Granted the show was written and produced in Britain, but creator and head writer Julian Fellowes seems to take a particular delight in portraying America as a land of uncouth loudmouths and overweening four-flushers.
Of course, show proponents will quickly point out that Lady Cora , wife of Lord Robert Crawley, is American. Her fortune, after all, bailed out the Abbey, which is true to history. Many U.S. heiresses married down-and-out aristocrats during that era.
But she is so thoroughly Anglicized, she hardly counts. A better representation of Fellows’ view of Americans is Shirley MacLaine’s character, Martha Levinson, Lady Cora’s mother.
She’s brash, gaudy, overbearing and unmannerly in the traditional sense of the word. Now in Season 4’s finale this Sunday (Feb. 22), viewers will get a glimpse of Lady Cora’s brother, Harold, played by Paul Giamatti.
Fellows has already provided some foreshadowing in last two episodes. You may recall, Lord Grantham was compelled to travel to America to use his social standing to vouch for Harold’s character after Harold becomes embroiled in some sort of scheme.
When Lord Grantham made his surprise return to Downton Abbey last week, he was greeted by loving family and servants who were intermingling almost like equals at a Sunday charity bazaar. How bucolic.
Of course, he could only shudder when asked about New York City. He poked fun at Prohibition and noted with a wink, that he had no problem getting a drink.
You can bet when Harold turns up on the show this week, he will talk tooo fast, drink too much, wear loud suits and smoke a fat cigar.
But there’s more than just the obvious caricatures of Americans at play.
Historically, the role of America is underplayed as well. The nation’s impact on Britain during World War I was huge, but during the Downton war years in Season Two, America was never mentioned.
Starting with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, American culture and innovations poured across the Atlantic. But they barely touch Downton Abbey, unless you count the arrival of the telephone and the refrigerator, both American inventions, although America is never acknowledged.
Fellow’s saving grace is his portrayal of Jack Ross, the African American jazz singer and musician. At least Ross was portrayed as a gentleman.
The Crawleys are progressive enough to allow him in to sing in their salon. But when Lady Rose (Lily James) falls in love with him and wants to get married it’s time to put their velvet shoe down.
The message is clear; in 1920s America, he’d likely be lynched. But Lady Mary handles the delicate situation with a few reasoned words.
Perhaps, Fellowes is merely presenting the aristocratic perspective on America at that time. But more likely, he’s pandering to the prevailing attitude in Britain.
With a fifth season in the works, it might be nice if Fellowes gives America some of the credit it deserves.
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