Isn’t Downton Abbey Just Like Daytime Soaps? Consider the Similarities …

By Marlena De Lacroix a.k.a. Connie Passalacqua Hayman

Name me a daytime soap fan who doesn’t watch and probably love Downton Abbey. Even though a lot happened this busy soap week (Genie’s coming back, Prospect Park made a deal with the Writers Guild) what everyone’s talking about is the megahit Masterpiece Theater miniseries. Downton’s third season premiered last Sunday on PBS.

I love Downton Abbey now too, but I briefly gave it up in frustration during season two.  The similarities between it and daytime soap opera became too much for moi. Hey, haven’t I seen these plots many  times  on daytime?  When paralyzed war vet Matthew suddenly stood up in his wheel chair, I couldn’t stop thinking of paralyzed Josh doing the same thing on Guiding Light.  A pair of lovers, Matthew and Lady Mary, overcome wrenching obstacles to finally get engaged and married!  Haven’t we seen similar couples break up and make up like that a million times on soaps?  Isn’t obstinate argumentative Mary just like obstinate argumentative Rachel Davis Corey on Another World?  Doesn’t blond and beautiful Dan Stevens (who plays Matthew) look as surreally perfect as countless daytime soap leading men?

Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery)
Downton Abbey supercouple

Plus, Downton Abbey rather blatantly begs comparison to my very favorite soapy British miniseries, the beloved Upstairs Downstairs, an earlier evolving drama of the parallel and often intersecting lives of the rich aristocrats upstairs and their servants downstairs. As smart and loaded with scandal, intrigue, history and romance as writer Julian Fellowes’ Downton is, the original Upstairs Downstairs (1971-75, created and mostly written by Alfred Shaughnessy) was a subtler and ultimately more touching portrait of the British class system at a crossroads.

And while we’re needling the estimable Mr. Fellowes for his rather obvious yet tastefully chosen source material … Do we see in the elegant and noble Lord Grantham the rich man Tevye always wanted to be in Fiddler on the Roof, yet still faced with losing control of the destinies of his three outspoken, oft rebellious daughters?And if the young women must come as a trio, how can we not recall their Russian contemporaries in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, angsting over the crumbling of their aristocratic world? (Okay, this one is a stretch. At least, as Mr. Fellowes writes it, we are spared some equivalent of the infernal yearning to go to Moscow.)

Well, you might say, so what? And you would be correct. For Downton Abbey is wonderful, intelligent fun, so splendidly produced and acted, and deserves every bit of its success.

And what pleases Marlena the most is that Downton Abbey succeeds for the very same reasons our best, cherished soap operas succeeded – and happily, in some recent cases, still succeed: the huge cast of characters we never stop caring about, living and loving in intertwined stories that take us out of our lives and into theirs. Because Marlena loves soaps so much she can’t get enough of them, I re-watched the rest of the second season. What irked me the first time through worked its magic on me the second time.

The swelling dramatic theme song, the costumes, the set design and scenery and the perfect looks of Dan Stevens beguiled me, and I came back to really liking the show.  Why?  The show is absolutely packed with so many characters and stories that move so fast in every episode that what you get in Downton is good, breathless, nonstop, almost concentrated soap opera. As cast newcomer Shirley MacLaine (Cora’s mother, Martha) observed in Parade Magazine just last week, “Fellowes is so successful because he’s invented a soap opera for the Internet Age.”

I agree. The speed in the storytelling is, as soap fans all know, au courant, the hallmark of another show we’re all raving about these days – General Hospital – which is packed with fascinating characters lately (especially the veterans), has multiple good plots going all at once, and most importantly has really speeded up the storytelling. The current GH storytelling methodology is coincidentally much the same as Downton’s.

Anyway, one of the reasons I love Downton is the characters, which is why most people love daytime soap opera.  Wouldn’t you love to have sympathetic Carson as your butler?  Lord Grantham has such marvelous English diction and such a superb physical carriage, Marlena’s developed a little crush on him, too. (I’m getting old.)   Isn’t Lady Edith itching to get married?  Her desperate tactics remind me a little bit of that of longtime single Marlena, before Moose came along.

Joanne Froggatt as Anna

And then there’s the falsely convicted murderer Mr. Bates and his wife, Anna, the lovely, wispy yet bulldog tenacious lady’s maid.  Don’t you just adore the looks of true love they share every time she visits him in prison?  Now that is the kind of chemistry and portrait of true love that daytime producers and writers would sell their souls for.  Will Mr. Bates ever be set free?Hey, aren’t there two leading men in jail right now on soaps — Todd and Johnny sharing a cell on GH?    Instead of love, all past lover and visitor Carly gives them is screeches and criticism.

I think I like Downton Abbey prison scenes a lot better.  So what do you think, Thinking Fans? Do Downton Abbey and daytime soaps cross paths for you? Discuss.


  1. Chere Marlena!

    What a lovely column on Downton Abbey, my current favorite prime time series.

    I am a recent covert to the series, finally having the opportunity during the fall to watch Season 1, immediately falling in love wit the lush series. Oh, such beautiful sets, gorgeous countryside and fascinating characters. I loved the opportunity to glimpse inside the aristocratic world of the 1910s, seeing things I might otherwise have never been exposed to.

    In December, I was able to watch Season 2, so fascinated by all the goings on that I finished the entire 9 episodes in three days. But it was during Season 2 that I began to notice the soapiness of the series, something I hadn’t really picked up on during Season 1.Season 2 had Matthew being paralyzed, Sybil falling for the poor chauffeur, Bates’ wife blackmailing him then ending up dead, Mary’s publisher fiance using scandalous information to keep her from leaving him, an illegitimate baby by a dashing soldier, even an amnesiac soldier suddenly getting his memory back and claiming he was the Crawley heir. Yes, Season 2 turned very soapy. A little too soapy for my taste, I must admit. But I was just so happy to be with these fascinating characters, I didn’t let that bother me too much.

    The Season 3 premier last week was delightful, Mary and Matthew’s wedding, Thomas trying to screw over the new footman, Lord Grantham finding out he’s out of money. Can’t wait to see how it all turns out. And if it turns soapy, well so be it. Just be sure to tell the story well.

    My other favorite primetime series, Mad Men, certainly has used plenty of soap element in its storytelling. And I haven’t objected to that in the least since Mad Men is so well written, executed and performed.

    So, I guess my motto would be, do it with style, class and intelligence and I don’t mind the soap elements one bit.

    Marlena says: Thanks as always, James. Great letter!

  2. According to the website Daytime Confidential, Susan Bedsow Horgan and Thom Racina has been named the new head writers for PP’s OLTL reboot! SBH previously was the HW for ATWT back in the mid-80’s, and was EP of OLTL during the mid-90’s. Thom Racina was the co-HW for GH and DAYS back in the 80’s. And former DAYS co-HW Marlene McPhereson is rumored to be named the new co-HW of the AMC reboot on PP while PP searches for another co HW for AMC too. Thoughts on this, Marlena?]]

    Marlena says: Great news! I know Thom and he really loves writing soaps, Susie too!

  3. Dear Connie/Marlena,

    Thank you so much for this!

    I reside in Michigan and have an Aunt with whom I visit annually in Colorado. She was talking up “Downton Abbey” early last year—as Season #02 was airing on PBS—but I had not tuned in. Oh, sure, it was the top Emmy winner (in the miniseries/television movie division) for the 2010–11 season—so I certainly wasn’t unaware of its existence. But, at that point, I hadn’t viewed it. During my visit with my Aunt last spring, she had the Blu-rays of both the miniseries and Season #02. I took them all in. And it was easy to see why she loves “Downton Abbey.” I love it too.

    “Downton Abbey” is a very engrossing and satisfying journey. The first season [miniseries] splendidly developed and showcased the lives of the aristocratic Crawleys and their rebellious daughters, as well as the likewise intrigue of their servants, in a Yorkshire country estate. This was very “Upstairs, Downstairs.” The second-season soap-operaness didn’t phase me, because there was logic connected. World War I had broken out (as revealed in the miniseries finale), and Robert and Cora (played by Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) allowed for Downton Abbey to house the sick and injured soldiers to help contribute to the war effort. That created plenty of chaos, which included ideal former physician’s assistant Isobel (Penelope Wilton) having overstepped boundaries and Cora having to appropriately pull rank on her. Like any good soap, much story was mined from that season. This included housemaid Ethel (Amy Nuttall) having become impregnated by one of the soldiers at Downton Abbey—and having left in shame. That’s a story which continues into Season #03. The breakout of [Spanish] influenza (think of the current U.S. epidemic) which took the life of the wife of Matthew (Dan Stevens) gave fuel to this season as he still feels guilt and doesn’t want to receive generosity from his late wife’s father. But that loss also allowed for him to unite with and become married to Mary (Michelle Dockery).

    I tend to appreciate the overall picture of “Downton Abbey” and its world, created by Julian Fellowes. He won the 2001 Oscar for best original screenplay for Robert Atlman’s “Gosford Park.” (Maggie Smith, who plays Robert’s mother Violet, was nominated as best supporting actress for that film. Fellowes and Smith have won Emmys for this series.) As “Gosford” was rich in detail, tasteful in style and substance, so are Fellowes’ lush and broad strokes for “Downton Abbey.” Even in small moments, I appreciate this series. For example: ones which involve Violet. Remember how she was accustomed to winning prizes for her roses? And then, when she was going to win again, announced the name of someone else who was more worthy? That revealed a lot about character. Hers. Violet may seem selfish, but in that moment we see how surprising human beings, even ones who are no longer young, can be. Also memorable was the poignant miscarriage of Cora (from the miniseries). Though it was a cruel fate, as it was crushing for Robert (who had hoped for a son), that was an “accident” that can be revisited later as the series progresses (for however long it will last).

    I do applaud the performances. They are remarkable. In the upstairs part of Downton Abbey, Hugh Bonneville makes a dashing and commanding leader. Elizabeth McGovern is smart and mature as the top lady. Two-time Oscar winner Maggie Smith does what many are so used to seeing her do—steal many scenes. Michelle Dockery is a wonder as the oldest daughter (who seems to want to become a woman of great stature). Dan Stevens matches Dockery as classic lovers having this great, continuous dance. Penelope Wilton (whose Isobel is Matthew’s mother) is robust and matches wits with Smith. In the downstairs part of Downton Abbey, Siobhan Finneran and Rob James–Collier make a duplicitous, pernicious pair as lady’s maid O’Brien and under butler Thomas. (They conspired with each other previously and, now in Season #03, they’re scheming against each other.) Lesley Nicol and Sophie McShera, who play the cook Mrs. Patmore and her assistant Daisy, strike a balance of being eccentric and fragile. (This was the case with Mrs. Patmore’s bout with blindness from the miniseries, and Daisy so unprepared for a future as a married woman-turned-widow from Season #02.) Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan make the butler Mr. Carson and the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes wise old friends who are well-versed on the many lessons of life and its numerous complications and developments. (It helps explain why they are proficient in leading their ship of servants.) And Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt make their long-suffering John and Anna Bates, the wrongly-imprisoned valet and the head housemaid, a sincere couple who (like Matthew and Mary) we root for not only in marriage but in endurance.

    I look forward to more developing story in this third season of “Downton Abbey.” To Shirley MacLaine’s appearances, as Cora’s mother Martha, and her views on modernization. (How involved will she become with the Crawleys?) To whether there’s hope for the unfortunate daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael). To the Bates spouses, and whether relief and justice will finally get delivered for them. To the further revealings of some characters’ hidden secrets (Thomas!). To the rumors of any major characters who may not survive the season. As of this date, I have viewed the first two episodes of Season #03 of “Downton Abbey.” There are five more to go. And I look forward to them.

    Marlena says DSO–What a lovely, lovely letter on Downton! You did a fantastic job of recreating all the characters. Isn’t it fun to have intelligent soap guaranteed to watch every week? I think poor Edith (who was stood up at the altar last week) will find happiness in the end, but I’m not sure about Mr. Bates. The show takes unexpected turns that I like. If only some of my friends who watch the English version (six months ahead) wouldn’t keep supplying me with spoilers. BTW, Marlena’s family lives in Michigan–Ann Arbor.

  4. I love the show’s soapy elements — best soap going right now. I don’t care one bit if the stories are ones I’ve seen before (never have minded!) because it’s the first time it’s happening to THESE characters, which makes it fresh. These characters are so well defined and acted, it makes it a joy. And I love that there are actually poor characters — bless those brits for remembering that not everyone is rich. American soaps seem to have forgotten this.

  5. I also love Downton Abbey. Call it what you will,to me it is a soap opera.One I look forward to watching it every sunday night..the characters you root for. the love stories you want to see everyone happy. I love the show and I am usually not much for British tv.
    I avoid the spoilers like the plague. Love the show and I am a soap fan.

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