Scrubber Girls, Undermined Valets and Likeable Lords: The World of 'Downton Abbey'

Downton Abbey is one of those shows that people are really proud of watching, like the way people tell you that they heard something on NPR as opposed to just having heard it on the radio or the news. NPR equals Smart. Usually folks tell you what they heard on NPR like it’s a story about their own smartness. 

“Saturday I was listening to NPR while I made my own organic suet for the local woodpeckers? Because they're endangered? And I heard XYZ.”

There even used to be bumper stickers for NPR that read “Get out of your car smarter than when you got in!” That’s Downton Abbey, it’s like a fucking intellectual gang sign. You down with the D. A.? You know it, dawg. (Not really, don't really say that)

The first thing I learned about the show is that a fun thing to do is find people who love it, and then talk to them eagerly about it but call it Downtown Abbey. Blithely dismiss their corrections, wear a smugly bemused smile, and just confidently keep at it til they snap. Good times.

Now. It turns out that listening to NPR may have failed to make me smart. I simply could not pay attention to Downton Abbey the first several runs I made at it.

It’s dry. Leftover pork chop with no gravy dry. You turn it on and it’s playing NPR music at you and showing you a roughly Sherlock Holmes-era setting but without murder or Sherlock Holmes. No dragons, no explosions, no heists — why isn’t this thing a book sitting around in a library someplace?

Even the Masterpiece Theater logo at the beginning seems proud of it. What you're about to watch will be like watching a book!

Instead it’s just showing me what all these people do. And fairly quickly, they fall into two categories, those who scrub and those who sit around eating fine food in freshly scrubbed rooms. You really get a sense of how many metric assloads of scrubbing would have to get done by how many people, back in the Pre Vacuum Cleaner Era.

But you can tell the show is smart as shit so you don’t want to fast forward through the eating and scrubbing because maybe they reveal something important and smart.

Eventually I used the Clockwork Orange Method, and my overall impression was like in The Dark Knight Rises when Catwoman blarneyed with alarming ease past Alfred to go try and steal something from Bruce Wayne, and you realize that cane’s real, Bruce Wayne is so out of shape he needs a cane, and you’re thinking, My God, this is going to be a long-ass movie.

Except here it’s not Oh Crap I Have To Watch Him Retrain To Be Batman Again; it’s just the sheer number of characters prancing around, and how many of them talk. Do I have to learn all of their names? Do they all have to speak Hobbit?

But I’m getting the hang of it now. The whole opening scene is more than just Who Scrubs and Who Gets To Eat. Instead, it follows the delivery of a telegram containing news that the Titanic sank. 

The telegram takes a Billy-From-Family-Circus-style journey all across the grounds from the telegraph office through the manor all the way to Lord Grantham, who is basically King Shit. And even though he has the same title as a certain Dark Side Jedi, Lord Grantham is an all right guy.

Like when they tell him the Titanic went down, and they reassure him that they got most of the ladies off of it first, it occurs to him that there were hundreds of poor people below deck and that they weren’t included in the term “ladies,” even if they were ladies. So okay, you don’t need to have a doctorate to get that message – We Like Lord Grantham. Got it.

But I doubt he’s the good guy, because he’s the Lord. You can’t say, “I’m pulling for the Lord of the Manor,” because what are you pulling for? That he’ll become a God King? I’m not seeing much of a journey ahead of him.


And yes, here’s the answer: Bates. He’s a grizzled, limping, well-spoken fellow who has just been hired as the new valet — a pretty sweet gig in the scrubber world, it seems — even though his leg is injured from the war. Turns out not much has changed — even a hundred years ago, people don’t like it when you get hired above them.

Suddenly we're in Mean Girls without Lindsay Lohan. Thomas the footman wanted to be the valet, it turns out. He's bad news, you can tell by looking at him. He's going to be trouble. If anyone gets murdered anytime soon, my money's on this guy.

So you know how when your boss promotes Rachel instead of you because he and Rachel are having a secret affair, and you start sneakily undermining Rachel's job performance? Passive-aggressively not sending her emails to keep her abreast of the project you're working on? Inviting everyone out to happy hour except her?

That's what Thomas and his fellow Mean Scrubbers start doing to Bates, but instead of fornicating with the boss, Bates is an injured war veteran who served with Lord Grantham, and instead of sneakily undermining him, they knock stuff out of his hands and say "Oh, look what the crippled guy dropped!"

Meanwhile, Lord Grantham's daughter, Lady Mary was supposed to get married to her cousin — totally cool back then — but her cousin died on the Titantic and so did his dad. The first thing Lady Mary wants to do is verify that she doesn't have to formally mourn her cousin because they hadn't announced the engagement, freaking us and her dad out at the same time.

Later on, Lord Grantham and his lawyer walk around dressed like Frosty the Snowman, and agree that they're screwed if Lady Mary doesn't sack up and marry somebody, I'm serious, I have no idea who it's going to be. I'll bet he'll be pretty hot though, cause a lot of ladies like this show.

Okay, wait, here's a dude they want her to marry, and he looks like Wilson from House and now he says he's leaving even though Lady Mary kind of throws herself at him. Must be some other dude on the way, someone she's not supposed to marry. Oh, and this dude's blackmailing Thomas. Damn, there's a lot of shit going on around here.

Pretty soon Thomas and the Master Butler (not a ninja) just about have Lord Grantham convinced that Bates should be booted off the job. I get a Main Character vibe off of Bates, so they don't fool me. Also, Lord Grantham's too cool to fire his old war buddy. I feel smarter already watching Lord Grantham stand there in the driveway and realize he's too cool to fire his old war buddy, til he basically says it out loud again. Knock it off, Downton Abbey.

And then a new Lord-ype guy gets a new letter at a new manor, and the episode ends, so I guess I get to learn a bunch of additional people next episode. Good lord, remember when Homer Simpson got that 12-foot sandwich and wouldn't stop eating it until he could fit it in the fridge? That's how I feel right now, having finished this first episode. Kind of nauseated by the extremely heavy meal, but I can't stay mad at the sandwich.

How can I stay mad at the sandwich?