[Ed. warning: the following article contains a few spoilers!]

AMC’s Mad Men and Masterpiece Classic’s Downton Abbey share more than their use of history to drive plot — more, even, than their tendency to generate nostalgia for elaborate gowns and martini lunches.

These shows’ contemporary appeal can be partly explained, I think, by their exploration of a traumatic cultural seam connecting (and dividing) two eras. For all their material differences, World War I-era England and 1960s New York were undergoing similar transformations: class structures were collapsing, sexual mores were loosening, and women were demanding increased agency. Each period saw, in other words, radical social change that reflects the ideals of many Americans circa 2012.

But change is never instant. Bearers of new ideas must contend with vestiges of conservatism — like grandmothers, womanizers, and aristocrats — even as they neuter outdated authority. The seams binding two eras are messy and crude, but they exist: no age is entirely cut away from those that precede and follow it.

Mad Men’s New York is one such seam; Downton Abbey’s eponymous Yorkshire estate is another. The shows’ conscious grounding at the interstice between two eras makes me question Daniel Mendelsohn’s dark claim, in his 2011 New York Review of Books piece, that the intense focus on certain sins of the sixties — smoking while pregnant, or drinking and driving, for example — serves primarily to eroticize those sins while pretending to condemn them. Mendelsohn writes:

 “For a drama (or book, or whatever) to invite an audience to feel superior to a less enlightened era even as it teases the regressive urges behind the behaviors associated with that era strikes me as the worst possible offense that can be committed in a creative work set in the past: it’s simultaneously contemptuous and pandering.”

Though I agree that Mad Men and Downton Abbey often portray outdated customs as simultaneously appalling and appealing, I think the shows consistently defuse the allure of the past by refocusing viewers’ attention on the the past’s imminent demise. Mendelsohn seems concerned that Mad Men really means something it merely pretends to mean; I think that the sins depicted are dead enough, are relegated enough to the past, that they really can’t mean anything. Yes, as Katie Roiphe notes in Slate, viewers are attracted to the glamour of the Crawleys’ wealth even though it is built on social inequality and the oppression of the lower classes.  But as the show reminds us many times, the era of noble families is ending. In today’s America, where income inequality is a living issue, it’s hard to imagine many people sympathizing with the portrayal of a billionaire banker. The British aristocracy is likable and the ‘60s ad men are bearable, on the other hand, precisely because their ilk is so clearly dying in the context of the shows and (mostly) dead in today’s world.

Indeed, characters like Mad Men’s ambitious Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss) and Downton Abbey’s progressive Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) serve as constant reminders that doom is nigh for the old ways: Peggy and Sybil are threads of the new order seeking to draw adherents to the fading epoch into their way of thinking.

Sybil, for example, plays an important role in bridging the divide between masters and servants — an oft-visited theme of Downton Abbey. Virginia Woolf famously declared  “on or about December, 1910, human character changed.” She was referring largely to the nature of master/servant relations, and illustrated her claim by observing the evolution of the English cook:

 “The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing-room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat. Do you ask for more solemn instances of the power of the human race to change?”

The opening scenes of Downton Abbey’s pilot — situated at the moment of the Titanic’s sinking in 1912 — introduce us rather pedantically to servants who adhere to Woolf’s older model of conduct. Unlike some of the show’s language, this move is not anachronistic. Woolf notes that the change in human character “was not sudden and definite,” and it is easy to imagine that such change would manifest itself first in London before spreading gradually to the country’s farthest reaches.

When change eventually arrives at Downton, Sybil is at its helm. First, she actively encourages housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie) to leave the service for a higher-paying, higher status secretarial job. Later and more dramatically, she falls in love with Branson, the chauffeur and Irish activist who, intent on defining himself in terms broader than hired help, convinces her to leave a life of settled wealth for a poor, adventurous one with him. Servants are suddenly socially mobile; indeed, they move right into the aristocracy.

Mad Men opens with a similar sense of imperturbability that we know the ‘60s will soon change. Here, office demographics and white, upper-middle class domestic dynamics play the same role as Downton’s master/servant relations. In the show’s first episodes, set in 1960, a 1950s atmosphere prevails: ad agency Sterling Cooper is all-white and all-male save its gorgeous secretaries who lack a word for sexual harassment; Betty Draper (January Jones) dissipates in her spacious suburban home while black housekeeper Carla (Deborah Lacey) effectively raises the Draper children.

The portrait of an era is just that: a static reminder of a cultural moment soon to be undone by forces — think Don’s affair with a Greenwich Village artist — that are already gathering strength. Soon Peggy becomes Sterling Cooper’s first female copywriter; as the shows’ seasons progress, she continues to build her career, she switches from a traditional living situation (staying with her family until marriage) to a modern one (renting in Manhattan with a roommate), and she experiments with drugs, sex, and hippies.

While Mad Men and Downton Abbey might fetishize a decadent or politically incorrect past, then, they take equal pleasure in portraying — even idealizing — the rise of new cultural choices and values. I’m inclined to think that both shows have tapped into a contemporary urge for excitement and social change — change that seems so slow-coming in real life that we must get our fix through television.


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