Diversity, Schmiversity: Black Folks Can Like “Downton Abbey” Too…

June 1, 2012  |  

You know how Netflix has the “10 ten suggestion for you,” option, which is suppose to find films and television shows that cater to your specific taste but never seems to actually get it right?  Well one of those “suggestions for you” just so happened to be Masterpiece Theatre: Downton Abbey.

The first time I heard of “Downton Abbey” was earlier this year when Gawker ran an article called Why Everyone in the Universe Should Watch Downton Abbey. I read it, and despite its somewhat reasonable arguments, I brushed it off. It’s not because it was British, because I love British television shows. In fact, I grew up on a healthy dose of British tomfoolery such as Are You Being Served?, Keeping Up Appearances, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers and a ton of other shows. Nor was it because it was one of those old period pieces, I rather enjoys those too. It’s simply because I don’t have a television in my house, so I don’t always get to see the stuff that folks are watching. Plus, I have become so disillusioned by Netflix and its suggestions that another faulty selection just might have pushed me over the edge. Sob. It’s like it doesn’t even know me.

But I decided to give the algorithmic system another chance. So I crashed on my couch, under the fan and got my old lady on with some Masterpiece Theatre. Three episodes later, I was sipping on green tea, eating some toast (the closest thing to tea and crumpets I had) and was fully engrossed in the first season of Downton Abbey. And if that wasn’t enough, at work the next day, all I could think about was how I couldn’t wait to go home and watch the remainder of the first season. It truly is just that good. And suddenly my faith in Netflix’s top suggestions has been redeemed.  Let the church say Amen.

The show, which is about an aristocratic British family at the turn of the century, has everything you want in a 1-hour drama: romance, sex, war, sibling rivalry, comedy and a whole bunch of social commentary. One of the major reasons why I like the show is because it does such a good job of exploring the issues of class and wealth, through not only the Lords and the Ladies of the estate, but also the various staff and servants who keep the estate in order. Downton Abbey is not only beautifully cast but also well written, and should probably be on everyone’s top ten list of shows to watch – if it isn’t already.

After I finished the first season, I called one of the girlfriends, who is always game to talk smack about a show’s plot points, and told her about my new prime time fix. I said to her, “Girl, you know what you should be watching? Downton Abbey.” Her response? “Nuh-uh. I’m not watching that. That show is for white people.

Scooby Doo “Rhuh?

This is not the first time I heard such a proclamation come out of her mouth. Last year, after I discovered the joys of Don Draper and the rest of the gang on Mad Men, I pleaded with her then to begin watching the show with me so that we could gossip. I got back virtually the same answer. “I’m not watching any show with no Black people on it,” she said.

Well that’s just silly. Besides, there are a number of shows with not a single black face on them that became must-see television in many black households. That list includes shows like Wonder Years, Married with Children, Full House, Friends, Three’s Company, Frasier, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Cheers and of course, the ever popular Seinfeld. I mean, those shows might have had guest starred a black person in an episode or two but for the most part they failed to consistently weave in any real diversity and mostly remained pretty homogenous. Yet we, particularly my girlfriend, still counts many of these black-less shows in our top ten. So what’s the fuss now?

“Well that was different. Times have changed,” she said.

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  • Baby Hughie

    Well, I’m White and I found this article because I was wondering if there was much interest in Downton Abbey among Black Folks (Googled it!)

    Silly question I guess, since I was addicted to “227” and that show had no White folks (and that wasn’t even a historical docudrama – or was it?)

  • Alexia

    Downton Abbey, Mad Men, The Borgias, The Tudors when they were on, Boardwalk Empire. I’m Black and I watch all of those. I’m a sucker for a period piece British or not, I’ll watch it all. People who limit themselves to certain things by the color of their skin are plain and simple…morons.

  • Candacey Doris

    I agree. with you. Just because i like shows like Downton Abbey and still watch reruns of Frasier doesn’t mean i don’t support black shows. It means i like shows with good writing and great actors. If i have a choice between that an BBW you know what I’m choosing an it’s not the ratchet women. If there’s a show out there that’s good, i’m not going to stop myself from seeing it just because it’s not a black show. I’m not going to not do anything just because someone says black people don’t do it (except bungee jumping. me on a rope, no!). Stop putting yourselves in a box and try to broaden your minds.

  • No Disrespect

    I disagree. I would rather see a token character than none at all. I simply refused to watch a show without one black person. I just can’t do it. I just won’t do it. Black actors need jobs too…token or not. In today’s world, major networks find “black shows” to be unnecessary b/c they notice that black people will watch the show anyway. Well, if no one is objecting to the lack of diversity on television, then the major networks will assume it is ok. Instead, they need to add diversity to the writing panel so they can successful add diverse characters to their sitcoms. We are stuck w/ token, one-dimensional, characters right now b/c the people writing for the black character are most likely not black.One step at a time. First, we demand more diversity, then we demand better characters. Black people existed all throughout history so it is NOT unrealistic to expect to see them everywhere – at least one, in every sitcom. I expect it.

  • Treacle234

    can’t wait for the new season of Downton Abbey to start. It is a really good periodic drama

  • Aaron T. Starks

    I’ll NEVER understand how some black people limit THEMSELVES because a certain thing “aint what we do”. My ancestors fought and died for us to be free to do whatever we please.
    And now, so many of us refuse to ever TRY things because it’s simply ‘not what black folks do’.

    This extends from things like tv and music (how do you know you don’t like a certain music if you simply don’t listen to it because “that’s not for us”?) to activities. I was planning on going rock climbing once and asked a friend of mine if was interested. “Black people don’t rock climb”. This nonsense is said about everything from scuba-diving, skiing, etc….

    It’s a mentality I just don’t get. As far as television, the perfect example is Seinfeld. It’s one of (if not THE) single funniest show ever. And so many black folks didn’t or don’t watch it because….well, they simply felt like they weren’t supposed to (and this was before Michael Richards made an a** of himself with his effort at Shock Comedy).

    Something doesn’t have to be made by or featuring predominantly black people in order for you to enjoy it. Ironically, a LOT of black-made entertainment is absolute garbage with many black supporting it simply because it IS black made. For instance, I’ll never understand the appeal of those awful Tyler Perry-produced sitcoms…

  • freebee33

    Love your idea for a show, title needs work though lol. I just got through watching series 1 of Downtown Abbey it was pretty food, yea it lacks diversity, but I just take it for what it is..a good show. I just wish we could get more ‘original’ series (crime dramas need not apply, there are enough) with diverse casts on TV.

  • jason vorhees

    britcoms are you kidding me…they are the best ever!!!! Are you being served, as time goes by, fawlty towers, black adder, to the manor born, waiting for god, keeping up appearences and my all time favorite…..VICAR OF DIBLEY! (((i love some dawn french))). I think ive seen everything with rowan atkinson in it (mr. bean). Yea people need to open their minds. Mind you this is coming from a 36 year old brotha who grew up on heavy metal and hip hop. I still get side eyes from friends when on saturday nites the brit block comes on PBS and i wont move from out front of the television. All i can say is excuse me while i sip my tea while downing sushi. lol

  • not a fan

    i’m not gonna front, I love a lot of shows that some folks deem “for white people.” I just can’t get down with House of Pain or that other show that comes on after The Game. Sometimes, i just wanna watch a good show that’s cast well, some black shows don’t fit the bill and some white shows don’t either. But i do feel a tinge of guilt sometimes..idk why. just do.

    • not a fan

      ok i kinda know why. because a black platform is hard to establish. I believe there are a lot of shows that are good and have an almost all black cast but hollywood and tvland doesn’t finance and support that platform. They rather support and endorse BBW and Love & Hip Hop type of stuff plus about 3% of the media is black owned which isn’t a lot so i try to make a conscience decision to support as much as i can. I do love Scandal! it’s diverse and the leading lady is a woman of color..finally!!!

  • Lei

    “sometimes, I don’t want to relate. Sometimes I just want a good show; one with good content and excellent writing” That is exactly how I felt. Besides like you said where would the “black character” fit into the Downton Abbey scenario. I am a huge fan of the series and thought Series 2 was better than the first. I plan on going to England this year for the annual Jane Austen Festival and want to visit the house used in the series. I like all types of shows like you said as long as the writing and acting is good, I am on board. Right now I am hooked on Happy Endings. They discuss stereotypes all the time in a funny way and don’t brush everything under the rug, which I love. Check it out.

    • msbrownsugababy

      +1 I love the show Happy Endings. Even though the Wayans kid is sorta token, his character is believable.

  • I love this show and have been a fan since the beginning.

  • Papillon

    I kinda agree with your friend. As you pointed out, back in the day Black people often watched shows with all-white casts, me included. But the older I get, the more I realize I need to support the efforts of our own people because whites are sure as heck not supporting us. I’ve never heard a white reminiscing about Living Single or A Different World.

    • lei

      Wonder how many white people you have asked? I have many white friends who used to watch both mentioned shows as well as others and loved them just as much as I did.

    • Msnaimah1985

      Supporting someone does not force you to not support someone else. Its great that you like African Centered Shows but you could be, no correction, you are mssing out on a lot in life in general.

      • Papillon

        Both my money and time are limited resources, so yes, when I support one thing, it does keep me from supporting something else. I grew up watching almost all of the shows mentioned in this article, even the British ones (Red Dwarf love!). I also watch more documentaries, independent films, and foreign-language films than anyone I know so I consider my viewing habits to be very well-rounded.

        I would never tell someone what they can or cannot watch. I may watch Downton Abbey myself eventually after all the hype dies down. But I do wish we would be more proactive in seeking out content created by and for us. That’s all I’m trying to say.

  • Kristina_p2002

    I love Downton Abbey!!! and I also am a fan of Masterpiece Classics as a whole, including Masterpiece Mystery.  Who cares!  I have watched Jane Austen movies> Again I ask WHO CARES???? We need to open our minds and broaden our hroizons.

  • DianeDT

    I could not agree with you more. A good show is a good show. Especially a great period piece such as Downton Abbey. I love Mad Men as well and I realize when I watch such shows that it only depicts a small perspective of the world. It’s not offensive that in this early 20th century aristocratic Britain family, there are no Black characters on the show. I read, I study history for the fun of it I know there were Black people making great contributions to society at that time ( During the War scenes I was quietly thanking Garrett A Morgan).
    I like your new show suggestion…seriously Hollywood is sleeping on a lot of untapped minority sources for NEW material..