I don’t watch much TV, the scripted kind especially, so when I find a show I can’t stop watching I devote considerable mental energy to figuring out why it’s so great. Obviously Downton Abbey is top of mind this week since the second season finally ended Sunday night with foxy Matthew and sleeveless dress-wearing Mary engaged and embracing in the snow, as though inside the sort of non-religiously themed snow globe people might actually really own. How great was this moment? The release of hours and hours and months and months of sexual tension — a tension so tense that that their “oh are we doing this again?” “I confess I love you but we said we wouldn’t, o!” actually became obnoxious. If they didn’t finally get it on at the end of that season finale, I would have given up and moved on to caring about bitchy Edith.
Another highly appealing thing about the series is the fact that it’s an English period drama, obviously. English period dramas are like crack. If I’m going to watch something on a screen, nothing beats an English period drama. I believe women like me like them so much because: they have an excuse for being sexist (the olden days, bla bla); the people dress up princess-like all the day long; horses and beagles are common animal guest stars; and the women have little else to think about aside from when they can finally marry and get laid, which forces the stories to be unabashedly romantic. (Even The King’s Speech, what I’ll call a progressive English period drama because it did not center around young women trying desperately to marry themselves off, was terribly romantic, with Helena Bonham Carter babying foxy Colin Firth over his speech lessons and whatnot.) (Oh, that’s another thing: the men are commonly foxy and don’t have the option of dressing like slobs, which is so lovely you can forgive the screenwriters for not giving them much bare pectoral time.)
But one of the most thought-provoking things about Downton Abbey are the servants and their relationship to the rich people. Like, isn’t it awkward for them to sleep in twin beds in the shabby parts of the house and serve the richies their richie things in their fancy richie rooms? And isn’t it awkward for the rich people to keep the servants on flimsy mattresses, two to a room, in the underbelly of their fabulous mansion, and summon them to help them put their starched vests on and pin their matted curls into place, only so they might go downstairs and eat the expensive and fancy food and many kinds of wine the servants don’t get to have but have prepared for them as thought they deserve it? And the servants’ ball? Where they allow them into the nice parts of the house and force them to engage in awkward dancing and socializing in only a semi-servant-y way? WTF is that??
Riveting, I say.
But it is not the only show on television like this. Oh no, it is not the only batty ensemble cast that pays perfectly good people to be undermined servants. Why, that happens all the time on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, too! In fact, the programs have more in common than just that. Just consider these similarities between them:
1. Servants. Lisa and maybe Adrienne might even employ full-time, live-in housekeepers, which is terribly awkward and retro-feeling. But also, even Kyle has a chef that comes through from time to time, even when all she needs to serve the non-eating Housewives is some guac and hummus with a couple celery sticks and a Triscuit. And Adrienne has that grumpy chef Bernie, who we witness instructing his staff of waiters to “serve from the right” at dinner parties, where guests are greeted by a young tux-wearing waiter holding a white gold tray of champagne flutes. That waiter seems to be treated no better than a piece of furniture or decorative entryway tablescape (or, perhaps, worse than that depending on whether or not these people are the type that seek out a coaster before setting a glass down).
2. Dressing up for no reason. At least two out of every three Housewives at any given moment is wearing stretch satin. Whether the cameras are there or not, I imagine. No matter where they are — a little league game, the beach, their own toilets, the deli counter — they are wearing platform peep toe pumps, enough diamonds to pay of 25 people’s student loans, and a taut, shiny gown that doesn’t make us wonder how low their belly buttons and breasts are sagging. They dress up to go over to each other’s houses, to ride in a non-convertible car to fetch someone from the airport, to go from their beds to the bathroom in the middle of the night. This makes no sense. Have these people not heard of denim? Of cotton? Isn’t the point of being fabulously wealthy to not have to dress up when you don’t feel like it? Because your wealth is enough to command respect and awe, whether or not you’ve remembered to place your 142-carat diamond bracelet on your wrist before going out to play tennis on your private court with your hot private instructor? The well-preserved look created by all that plastic surgery should remind everyone within at least a few yards how rich they are, anyway.
3. Misery. All Housewives series, but the Beverly Hills installment particularly, is infused with an underlying sense of misery, numbed by too much white w(h)ine and Champagne served by a never-ending slew of young men wearing white bow-ties. It’s no different from Downton, where only the granny can say what she really thinks at any given moment, and the rest of them just sit at the dinner table hoping the fake politeness and booze will make them all forget about how miserable they shouldn’t be considering how rich they are. And then you end up hating them even though you don’t, because they are so rich and so miserable and such bad people in so many ways, and they never stop to consider how selfish they are. But before we can get too mired in our quiet hatred of all of them, numbed by too much of the boxed wine we poured for yourselves alone in our apartments, someone has an awesome fight or meltdown, and you love them all over again, because they remind you how much you don’t want money if it makes you like that.