Julian Fellowes understands what makes Downton Abbey so special. His emphasis on characters over the age of 50 has made the show a rarity and a gem.
Downton Abbey will come to an end this year and I am in no way ready to leave the manor behind. The British drama has struck a chord with viewers around the world, and while some of its more recent plot twists have been soapier than I would have liked, there is one area where the show has always excelled: portraying the rich, interior lives of its older characters. I fear that once Downton Abbey leaves the air, the rich friendships, love affairs and emotional truths of the over-50 crowd will once again be undiscovered country as far as TV is concerned.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, during a Writers Guild panel Saturday, creator Julian Fellowes said, “I like older characters to have emotional lives because I think it’s truthful. In movie land, everyone stops being a sexual creature at about 32, or at least the women do. The men are allowed to keep going until they are 78 — I’ve never worked that out. In my world, on the whole, older people have emotions like everybody else and I think the show demonstrates that.”
For all the missteps Downton Abbey has made in its last few seasons, the series has never stumbled where its older characters are concerned. Dame Maggie Smith’s Lady Violet has always been the show’s most remarkable character. Lady Violet is at once a source of humor, thanks to her dry wit, and a pillar of strength on which all of the characters rely. Wit and wisdom are attributes often assigned to older characters, but Fellowes did not stop there.
In Season 5, Lady Violet’s love affair with a Russian duke was explored in great detail. Her romantic yearnings were treated with great respect and the story line was easily one of the season’s best. Additionally, Lady Violet’s friendship with her sparring partner, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), is an integral part of the fabric of Downton. Throughout the seasons, these two women have forged a bond out of mutual respect, shared family and a love of one-upping each other. When they sit and chat about their lives and loves, Downton becomes transcendent television.
Beyond Isobel and Lady Violet, there are Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) downstairs. Carson and Mrs. Hughes have worked side by side for decades. They are each other’s greatest confidante and closest friend. No offense to Matthew and Mary, but they are also Downton‘s greatest love story. Their will-they-or-won’t-they relationship has been handled with the utmost maturity, and when they finally got engaged in the Season 5 finale, I could not stop the tears from flowing.
There are other characters, as well. Lord and Lady Grantham’s marriage has always been at the center of the show and it has weathered many storms, from affairs and flirtations to the loss of a child. In the kitchen, Mrs. Patmore has mentored Daisy from the very beginning, but she has also been given strong material that is all her own, like when she fought Lord Grantham’s decision not to fight for her nephew’s name to be on a plaque honoring fallen soldiers. Last season also saw the introduction of Denker, a bawdy, proud woman who was the perfect fit to be Lady Violet’s maid.
In Season 6, Fellowes has vowed to focus on the burgeoning romance between Carson and Mrs. Hughes and to give Violet a proper send-off. Fellowes recognizes these characters who are old enough to have lived lives full of stories still have more stories to tell. He honors characters over 50 by never ignoring them, never turning them into clichés and never, ever underestimating the viewers’ desire to see them lead full and fascinating lives — and that means not denying that they are still sexual, emotional human beings.
Aside from Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, the television landscape has precious few shows that truly focus on characters outside the coveted younger demographics. Sure, there are plenty of stories about 40-year-olds, but those stories often revolve around their fear that their lives are over. If television writers learn nothing else from Fellowes, they should learn that characters can be dynamic at any age, and yes, viewers will watch — even the younger ones.
I know that I do not watch TV simply to see a reflection of myself. As much as I enjoy the twentysomething struggles of Broad City and Girls, I also drink in the richness of Lady Violet’s strong and fierce personality. Once she and the rest of her Downton contemporaries are gone, TV is going to look a lot younger and a lot less interesting.