We all have very short memories.
Downton Abbey’s entire third season has already aired in the U.K., so thanks to my nefarious ways, I was able to sit down and watch the whole thing in a marathon session. (If anyone from the RIAA is reading this, I purchased a plane ticket and flew to London, where a rogue DVR was awaiting me.) Spoiler alert, it is awful, which you will all find out very soon as the episodes slowly make their way over here via PBS. Yet no matter how many insane plots were introduced or how much egregious overacting flew in my face, I could not will myself to look away. The minutia of a 1920s mansion and its servants could be soapier than my bubble bath, and yet there was the next episode, all queued up.
It’s the same phenomenon that comes after a night of heavy drinking. I wake up with a massive hangover, a slide show of each beer and shot flashing in my brain. I cringe at every one. “I’ll never drink again,” I vow as I fire up my PlayStation 3 and sip Gatorade like it’s high tea with the Dowager Countess Of Grantham. “I’m going to jog more, finish that sitcom pilot, and pitch more articles about Downton Abbey!” I decide over a lunch that might as well have come from Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen—Advil and regret. Then it’s 7:45 p.m., and I rush out the door to meet a friend and catch the tail end of happy hour. I might have a problem.
What is it about Downton Abbey that intrigues as much as it infuriates? For that matter, why do we do things we know are bad for us, again and again, until we somehow convince ourselves it’s fine? The answer lies in another show that actively encouraged audiences to hate it, yet teased them with a dangling carrot of shouting and three-second boob flashes: Entourage, the comedy about the trials and tribulations of an A-Team-type posse surrounding an A-list actor, which concluded its eight-season run on HBO in 2011. Both present escapism so over-the-top, it’s impossible to feel shame.
In the spirit of Todd VanDerWerff’s enlightening comparison of Community and Glee, I present undeniable evidence that Downton Abbey and Entourage are pretty much the same show:
1. Both shows are porn for people with anxiety.
Episodes of Entourage end one of two ways. Half the time, something terrible is about to happen that we are told will change the future of every character forever. Maybe Vinnie Chase is on the verge of losing a huge movie deal, or Turtle’s new baked-clam restaurant is about to lose an investor. Or an STD scare (not really). The other half of the time, the previous problem is solved by a magical deus ex machina, like when Gus Van Sant sends Vince’s reel to Martin Scorsese, who immediately casts Vince in the starring role of his The Great Gatsby adaptation—all in the span of a single episode. Then the guys gather around the bar, clink shot glasses, and go off in search of tail. “Looks like everything worked out” might as well have been Entourage’s marketing slogan.
There are no stakes that last longer than an episode or two. No matter what the problem, there’s always a magical solution waiting in the wings that sews everything up cleaner than Drama’s mustache/soul patch combo. If only life were more like that.
In the same way, Downton Abbey is full of tension heightened by the fact that these people have nothing better to do than sit around and worry about nothing. Season two begins with Mary and Matthew wanting to be together, and ends with a marriage proposal. Along the way, there’s Mary’s lecherous newspaperman beau Sir Carlisle, who threatens to ruin her reputation should she ever leave, and Matthew’s fiancée, Lavinia, who senses she’s a consolation prize. Every character wonders how Matthew and Mary will ever find a way. They eat pastries and worry. They eat soufflés and worry. They pay credence to a bandaged stranger who claims to be Mary’s long-lost first fiancé and disappears after an episode, and worry. The residents of Downton can rock a tux like no other, but they can’t emotionally compartmentalize for shit.
To get Mary and Matthew together, it takes a death. Lavinia has to die—but not before telling Matthew, flat out, that this way he can finally wed Mary without feeling guilty, and that this is all for the best. Even with her last breath, Lavinia offers the perfect solution to an immeasurably fraught problem. Plus all that time worrying about what Carlisle’s going to do was apparently for naught, because he doesn’t speak out about anything. Matthew gets down on one knee, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
And get ready for a season three of gasping followed by an instantaneous and simultaneous “phew!” Let’s get to some spoilers: Downton is in danger of financial collapse, and Matthew has just inherited a bunch of money from Lavinia’s father. He feels guilty taking the money to save Downton because, you know, Lavinia. But Mary discovers a letter from Lavinia’s father that essentially says he knew the whole time that Matthew was not long for his family, and that he should take the money guilt-free. Perfect! Meanwhile, gasp, Sybil dies after the family refuses to listen to their longtime physician and instead go for some hotshot guy Lord Grantham trusts. Robert and Cora’s marriage suffers, as you’d expect. Until the Countess gets said physician to lie and say that even if they had listened to him, they couldn’t have really saved her. The untimely death of one of Downton’s beloved is treated only slightly more seriously than when Violet discovers Matthew’s mom is employing a prostitute.
These shows are porn for anxious people because they offer an escape from the nebulous, vague dread that people with anxiety experience every day. How often I’ve sat around fretting over whether to buy the blue tie or the eggplant-colored one, my mind a centrifuge of false consequences and needless self-blame. How exhilarating it would be to learn the blue tie is sold out. No longer would I have to suffer the torment of simply existing! That happens maybe 2 percent of the time; the rest is an uphill battle.
Both Downton Abbey and Entourage raise the stakes artificially high, then provide tidy, swift resolution. Nothing lingers. How wonderful it would be, what a welcome reprieve, to live in those worlds.
2. Both shows began as well-intentioned satires that got out of control.
There are plenty of theories floating around as to why Downton Abbey’s second season was so disappointing. Meredith Blake over at TV Club has written that essentially the show’s soap factor took over, and there was only so much she could take. The show’s executive producer claims it’s simply a matter of calling a spade a spade—that the show was always a soap opera, and it was only after two seasons that people realized they were watching the kind of show where a guy can miraculously heal from a paralyzing wound that was supposed to take away his ability to walk and procreate forever.
After watching season three, I have a theory of my own: America ruined Downton Abbey.
The American model of television is largely dictated by the demand of the audience, not the creative arc of the show’s creators and writers. In the U.K., it’s not uncommon for showrunners to say, “That’s it” and simply stop. Not so over here, where The Office should have ended two seasons ago and The Walking Dead is doomed to run forever as long as it’s financially anchoring AMC’s more realistically timed-out projects, like Breaking Bad. So here comes Downton Abbey, with a stellar first season that swiftly moved the plot along and took great care to ensure its characterization remained believable throughout a botched Cora pregnancy and an upcoming war that claimed some of Downton’s finest. It was a soap opera—let’s call the spade a spade—but it was a fleet one. Good TV comes from taking the thing you want to do in the series finale, doing it in the second or third episode, then going, “Oh shit, what now?” and writing your way out.
Then Downton Abbey was a hit, so Julian Fellowes and company thought, “Oh shit, what now?” Only instead of keeping pace with what they’d done before, they took their sketchbook for the rest of the show and streeeeeetched it out. The reason why we got that mysterious bandage guy in season two who disappeared after a single episode, never to be heard from again, is because what else were they going to do? Burn off a legitimate story arc? Downton’s self-seriousness is now the punchline to its disastrous transformation.
When Entourage debuted in 2004, vapid celebrity culture was all the rage. (Okay, it still is.) So this was a show about a vapid celebrity doing vapid celebrity things; Vince and his crew stressing over his choice of date to a movie première was, in and of itself, the joke. And the show deftly mocked others from within. Stars like Jimmy Kimmel and Gary Busey appeared in season one and played crazy versions of themselves, demonstrating that they wanted to be part of the fun. People who enjoyed seeing fancy cars and fancy restaurants enjoyed it for what it was, and those who were in on the gag snickered ironically.
Then Entourage got itself a few Emmy nominations and, probably, requests from other celebrities to appear. It was popular enough, but beyond that, the right people were watching: Hollywood movers and shakers. It could no longer operate as a rogue commentary on the business if it was becoming a major player in said business, and right around season three, when Dom came and went like so many of Vince’s yoga instructors, Entourage went off the rails. It became everything it was mocking.
Satire and intended longevity are mutually exclusive. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are so successful because they have few boundaries. They remain singularly focused on the visions of their hosts, and damn whoever they offend in the process. Burning a few bridges is par for the course. It just so happens that enough people still like those guys. Downton Abbey and Entourage are more timid. Their reputation is at stake—and in both those worlds, reputation is everything.
3. Both shows are about the elite and those who serve the elite.
For every movie star, there is an army of soldiers marching to the beat of the Hollywood drum—agents, managers, publicists, lawyers, lit agents, assistants, social-media directors, stunt doubles, paparazzi distracters, bodyguards, coke dealers, weed dealers, ecstasy dealers, etc. Just as for every Earl Of Grantham, there is an entire city/business ecosystem that relies on the steady flow of service jobs, be it working at the actual Abbey or serving beer to the servants on their nights off.
Downton Abbey and Entourage showcase the two sides equally. Ari and Lloyd get as much screen time as Vince and Drama, just as Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson are major players up there with Robert, Cora, and Lady Mary. And in both cases, those in service derive their entire identity from the service itself. When the Downton team gets a bit of a break in the recently aired Christmas special, Carson insists they stay behind and polish some silver. And when Ari’s not yelling at his agents for not getting Vince some deal, he’s withholding sex from his wife on “game day”—the day one of Vince’s movies comes out. It seems downright depressing at times to watch good people destroy their personal lives so the irons can remain in the fire even when the room is empty.
But the big shots on Downton and Entourage are similarly at the whims of the artificial. Vince desperately wants to make movies so he can validate his rough-and-tumble Queens upbringing. Robert and his mom, Violet, want the Abbey to run smoothly because it validates the work of those who came before. People who seek the approval of others when they can no longer find it in themselves? See: porn for people with anxiety.
4. Both shows present skewed versions of loyalty.
Quantity has no place in friendship. There’s no reason I can’t be closer with someone I met one year ago than someone I met seven years ago—there’s a magical alchemy when two people truly hit it off, and I don’t just mean romantically.
Not so in the world of Entourage. There is an active dichotomy between what a new manager can do for Vince’s career right now and Vince’s loyalty to Eric as a friend and confidant. After all, he’s known the guy since they were little kids, when they were Queens Boulevard. Eric might conveniently play Vince for his own gain and leverage their friendship as a means to get what he wants, but Vince will always forgive. And vice versa, as when E calls Vince out for being a coke-addicted fuck-up. Loyalty is a proxy of time.
On Downton Abbey, the number of years one has served the cause is a badge of honor worth more than all the cigarettes Thomas can smoke. The new guy is vilified, and the old way wins out, along with the old person carrying out the old ways. Miss O’Brien was tormented in season one not just because she ended the life of an unborn baby, but because she was so damn loyal to the family. How could she, a person who has served the Abbey through countless cricket matches, do something so heartless?
It’s sort of a running gag how few new people enter into the orbit of, say, Happy Endings or Parks & Recreation. Presumably, these people are charismatic enough to have other friends, yet we rarely see them. It’s no problem, though—the characters choose who they spend time with, a realistic portrayal of friendship born out of love and compassion. But both Downton Abbey and Entourage would not have it any other way. After all, they are fueled by anxiety, a mental place where the big, scary world is only tempered by militaristic routine. Compatriots are chosen out of fear.
5. Both shows offer glimpses into lives we will never have, and probably don’t want.
In order to feel truly included, one must exclude as many others as possible. Posh late-night parties require meticulous guest-list curation and an immaculate dress code, ensuring those who attend will have the time of their lives, knowing this bacchanalia is entirely for their own benefit.
Downton Abbey takes place in the early 1920s in an immaculately groomed old building populated by servants. Now, I’m no oil tycoon or textile heir, but I assume the majority of us will never know what this feels like. (Or if you do, congrats! Why are you still reading this and not spending time in your hat room?) Yet we’re given the chance to accompany Matthew on hunting expeditions fit for a J.Crew catalog, and feel Branson’s thrill when he finally whisks Sybil away to Ireland. The flip side is that we also feel Violet’s fury when Robert wears the wrong kind of suit to a dinner party, or Lady Edith insists on bringing a perfectly respectable, nice man to dinner who’s in an arm sling, and therefore unsuitable for a woman of her stature.
Then there is Vincent Chase. He has sex with porn stars. He lives in a large house and gets stoned every day with his best friends. He takes private jets to Las Vegas and is all like, “I ain’t gettin’ no haircut!” He’s the guy every horny teenage boy thinks is the ideal adult. Then comes the rejection, the drugs, the bankruptcy, and the betrayal. We wanted in, so we get it all. Much like on Downton, Entourage presents a monkey’s-paw conundrum along the lines of “Be careful what you wish for.”
But neither show is bold enough to see this through. “Downton is saved” is the equivalent of Entourage’s “Looks like everything worked out.” It’s an empty victory cry we know is coming, yet every time it does, we feel a sense of relief. Because as far removed as Matthew Crawley’s life might be from our own, the dissipation of anxiety is the ultimate reward. The English countryside and the Hollywood hills are backdrops that fool us into thinking we’re looking through a window, when in fact, both are mirrors.
It’s easy to forget.