Downton Abbey is full of overt and subtle sins without being offset by the gospel or godliness. Homosexuality, fornication, lying, adultery, murder, jealousy, greed, envy, strife – all are in the Bible. All are in Downton Abbey. But Scripture (and many classic works of literature and film) sets them beside purity, honesty, selflessness, generosity, and the gospel itself. Downton is totally devoid of the gospel, and does little to construct a framework in which to criticize or evaluate immorality.
Just so you know, I want to watch Downton Abbey. There are a lot of reasons to. One, it’s pretty. I love pretty things, especially buildings and clothes. If the storyline was set in an Arkansas trailer park, I wouldn’t be interested. Two, it’s set (at least initially) in Edwardian England, a period I’ve always liked (did I mention pretty clothes?). Three, it’s everywhere, and not watching it makes me feel out of the loop, big time. Four, loads of Christians I know are watching it – godly, mature believers. So that must mean it’s okay, right?
I actually started watching episode one, season one, and got as far as the scene where Thomas kisses the visiting duke in his room. I turned it off. Later, when season three was going to come out and I realized that all sorts of believers were watching it (some admitting they were addicted), I thought that maybe I was missing something or being reactionary. So I read summaries online and watched the official seasons 1&2 recap (yes, I realize that they make it look more trashy than it is—hear me out). That sealed it: I was not going to watch Downton Abbey. After multiple discussions with other Christian women (and a man or two) who had watched it, I can now articulate why.
Downton Abbey is full of overt and subtle sins without being offset by the gospel or godliness. Homosexuality, fornication, lying, adultery, murder, jealousy, greed, envy, strife – all are in the Bible. All are in Downton Abbey. But Scripture (and many classic works of literature and film) sets them beside purity, honesty, selflessness, generosity, and the gospel itself. Downton is totally devoid of the gospel, and does little to construct a framework in which to criticize or evaluate immorality. Now, not every episode has something grossly immoral, but they didn’t make the seasons 1 and 2 recap out of nothing. That, and more, are spread through the whole thing.
Sure, sometimes the “bad guys” get what they deserve (from a secular human perspective). But who are the bad guys? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Mary, arguably the heroine, is self centered, initially cold, manipulative, and has no problem falling into bed with a diplomat and then covering up his death. She later pulls herself together a bit because she worries that her “mistakes” are damaging the family reputation, and not primarily because she sees them as inherently wrong. Even after her marriage, she is immature and unsteady. Hardly the sort of person I want my daughters to look up to, despite her taste in clothes.
Then there’s Thomas; coldly ambitious in the first part of the series, then morphing into a victim of circumstance. His sexual orientation is a significant element in the series, and receives acceptance, if not approval, by Lord Grantham (who himself sees little wrong with hitting on a maid as long as he doesn’t get caught). If I met Thomas in real life, we could talk through some issues (maybe loan him my copy of Rosaria Butterfield’s book), but voluntarily subjecting myself to watching him manipulate and make out is just not an option for me.
Of course, there are a few “good” characters—people you could actually trust and look up to—but most of them are supportive roles, often servants. The show’s movers and shakers are deeply flawed and fine with it (if they are aware of it), as long as they don’t have to deal with consequences of their sins.
And that was my other problem. Not only do I not want to have to watch scenes with explicit sex or murder in them: I don’t want the BBC manipulating my emotions so that I want those scenes to happen. I do not want to be okay with the protagonists being so messed up. How can I sit on the couch and root for Bates and Anna when he should be pursuing his wife and determining to love her (see Hosea)? The show rigs it so that I want them to be able to get rid of the wife and live happily ever after. That’s sin—my own real sin flowing from someone’s pretended infidelity. I can’t sip my tea and allow a producer to shift my line of what’s acceptable, good, pure, true, beautiful, and praiseworthy.
But it was more complicated than that, wasn’t it? His wife wouldn’t give him a divorce so he was stuck and in love and we don’t even know if he did it. Of course it’s complicated. Make it too black and white, and people will be able to make moral judgments. Parents won’t let their daughters watch it. Muddy the waters a little by making Mrs Bates an evil woman who doesn’t love her husband and have him fall in love with a sweet little maid—that’s the way to blur ethical lines. And those sorts of maneuvers effect and change the way I think.
I don’t want to be taught by Downton Abbey. It’s goal is not to teach me manners, or justice, or any other lame object lesson that believers have claimed they are getting from it (did 9 million viewers really tune in to season one to learn manners?). We might be able to wring those things out of it, just as we might be able to learn to love and value our children more by watching a series that has a pedophile and abortionist as lead characters (would you watch that, if it was pretty and entertaining and you “almost never see anything, you just know it’s happened, and that’s the way people are, anyway”?).
Manners and a deepened sense of justice aren’t the BBC’s agenda. They know what sells, and it’s not p’s and q’s. It’s decadence and sex, in multiple forms. And try as I might to remain unaffected by the content it will change me in some way. It’s no coincidence that the country that created and consumed Downton Abbey is the same one that legalized homosexual marriage this month. Pop culture never stays pop culture; our entertainment filters into the rest of our lives.
In short, as I looked at, read, and thought about Downton Abbey, the spiritual cost-benefit just didn’t add up for me. Whatever good I might get from it, I was getting other things that were far worse. It doesn’t matter that the “bad parts” are a small percentage of the series: they are still there and I don’t want to swallow them, so matter how sugar coated they are—and they are. I can get manners from Emily Post. I can get cultural commentary from Eric Metaxas. I can get a personal history of the period from the Churchills. Watching Downton Abbey is not worth the spiritual cost of filtering out the junk for the aesthetic pleasure of watching it. Its “redemptive qualities” are not redemptive enough to quiet my conscience.
Rebecca VanDoodewaard is a stay at home mom and free-lance editor. She and her husband, Purtian Reformed Seminary Church History prof Willliam, blog at The Christian Pundit where this article first appeared; it is used with permission.