With Valentine’s Day coming up, what better time to celebrate the most thrilling new love of my life? I’m speaking, of course, of Downton Abbey. This Public Broadcasting Service show about upper-crust, World War I-era Brits and their servants has thrown my whole existence into a healthier perspective—and with luck it will do the same for you.
The secret, in a word, is schadenfreude, that possibly shameful but undeniable pleasure we sometimes feel at the misery of others. Now let’s be clear: By “others” I do not mean the beleaguered underclass who cook the meals and shine the oxfords below-stairs at Downton. Though I admit to snickering last season when Thomas, the sneaky footman, got what was coming to him, in general I don’t smile when the estate’s workers fall metaphorically on their underfed bums. Where’s the fun in that?
No, what puts the spice in schadenfreude is when trouble hits people far better off than you—making your own fortunes shine unexpectedly by comparison. And on the surface, the upstairs folks at Downton sure have it better than most of us: gorgeous estate, fabulous clothes, amazing food, free-flowing wine, and jobs (for those who bother with jobs) that seldom intrude on the day’s crumpet-fueled horseback ride. All of which makes each episode’s drama, disgrace or disaster that much more fulfilling.
Plenty of shows serve up trouble in paradise. But for the very best schadenfreude—the sort that curbs your jealousy at not being fantastically, photogenically, anachronistically wealthy—nothing beats the Real Bluebloods of Downton. Sure, you might still succumb to fantasies of wearing perfect dresses like Lady Mary Crawley, or waking to a freshly ironed newspaper like the Earl of Grantham. But look at how many more things Downton gives you to gloat about as a 21st-century American:
If you’re a woman:
• Whenever you feel like it, you can wear pants.
• Some distant cousin won’t inherit all your parents’ stuff just because he’s a guy.
• You may pursue any career you choose, without half the county giving you the hairy eyeball.
• If you indulge in hanky-panky before you marry, most people will say, “Meh,” and are highly unlikely to blackmail you into a creepy engagement.
If you’re a man:
• Whenever you feel like it, you are free to smile or even laugh.
• You don’t need to wear a tie to breakfast.
• You can lounge on the couch while speaking with your family, instead of standing at attention with one hand on a mantelpiece.
• You have friends—real friends—who aren’t employed by you and won’t be afraid to say that your new jacket makes you look like a nutcracker.
• You can drive your own car.
• You can put your clothes on all by yourself instead of being treated like Aristocrat Barbie.
• Your mother/mother-in-law/grandmother is nowhere as scary as the Dowager Countess.
• Two words: flu shots.
Shadenfreude can get you only so far, of course. But if you’re lucky, Downton Abbey just might make you feel a bit readier to embrace your own life, whatever its problems, and a shade less envious of people with stratospheric wealth. I know it does for me. And these days, you can’t ask for a better Valentine’s gift.