The clash of Titans: Downton Abbey vs. Upstairs Downstairs

I finally finished the first season of Downton Abbey, having previously finished the first season of Upstairs Downstairs. I was curious to see how they’d compare.
The most notable difference is the focus of the story (using the Orson Scott Card breakdown I cover here). Upstairs Downstairs is very much a series about setting. The first season doesn’t have any sort of overall arc but introduces us to the Bellamy family and their sizable staff. At various points, we encounter Sarah, a chronic liar and rebel who eventually goes from downstairs to on stage (and becomes the Bellamy son’s mistress); Mrs. Bellamy has an affair; Elizabeth Bellamy encounters several potential students and falls in with an artsy Bohemian crowd; the cook has a nervous breakdown after a servant commits suicide; and Mr. Bellamy negotiates the waters of politics.
Downton Abbey is much more event focused. The plot kicks off when Lord Grantham’s heir dies on the Titanic (the series opens about six years later than UD, and moves quite a bit faster), leaving Grantham’s cousin, a solicitor, as the only male heir. This in turn leaves Grantham’s eldest, Mary, in a plight—either she marries the solicitor or when he inherits, she’ll have nowhere to go (of course she’d have been equally penniless if her brother had inherited—the family fortune all goes to support the estate—but I guess her brother would have let her hang around the house).
There’s lots of other stuff going on, such as the struggle of the handicapped valet, Bates, to keep his position; one maid’s desire to become a secretary; and Matthew’s mother locking horns with dowager countess Maggie Smith (but that also results from the death of the heir bringing them into the same orbit). But there’s much more of a sense of plot momentum (will Mary marry him? Will a scandal make her unmarriagable completely?) than UD. Which is not a criticism—both are valid ways to tell the story.
And just to throw it in, the excellent Forsyte Saga from a few years ago takes another approach, character. The kickoff to the story is a personal decision: Jolyon Forsyte walks away from the family business to become an artist. It’s his personal struggle to find happiness (and that of others, such as his calculating brother Soames) that shapes events. Again, this is not automatically better, just a different approach (both the other shows have good characterization, even though it’s not the driving force)
All that being said, I personally rate Downton under the other two series. I’m not sure why, but the mad addiction so many people feel for it just isn’t there for me.
Downton creator Sir Julian Fellowes told The Writer recently that he’s able to do things—dealing with poverty and homosexuality, for instance—that period dramas of the UD era wouldn’t have touched. I don’t agree. Upstairs Downstairs also had an episode dealing with homosexuality (not a positive portrayal, but then Fellowes’ conniving footman is nobody’s role model either). And in many ways the later show is a lot more conventional. There’s no-one as willing to flaut the rules as Sarah, nor do any of the daughters show as much of a rebellious streak as Elizabeth Bellamy (let alone Jolyon Forsyte). It might as well be Jane Austen for all the options Mary has (though I shouldn’t push this argument too far—Elizabeth does tie the knot at the end of the season)
Which is not to say I won’t catch the second season. But then again, there’s a lot more Upstairs Downstairs to watch.

1 Comment

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One response to “The clash of Titans: Downton Abbey vs. Upstairs Downstairs

  1. Pingback: Half-vacation, half-work, more terrible than either! | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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