"It's wonderful what fear can do to the human spirit."
Given the headline of this article, there's a 50 percent chance that you would assume that the above quote is from "Spartacus," the Starz gladiator drama that is well known for its regular displays of violence.
But the quote comes from Mrs. Patmore, the cook on "Downton Abbey," who makes that observation in an upcoming Season 2 episode of the tony PBS period piece.
And I'm betting you can believe that statement came from a character on the PBS show, because both of these dramas, despite their surface differences, cover very similar terrain.
Both "Downton Abbey" and "Spartacus" are obsessed with power. Who has it? Who wants it? Why do people wield it the way they do? What do people will do to obtain it? And what do people have to sacrifice in order to break free of the rigid rules that hold them in place? Fear and power go hand in hand, which is something the long-suffering Daisy, Mrs. Patmore's sole minion, knows well.
"Downton" and "Spartacus" may be set a couple thousand years apart, but both shows depict constant struggles for control and strenuous attempts to enforce laws and longstanding customs. Whether the characters are wearing loincloths or corsets, the paths they travel aren't all that dissimilar: Most people in "Downton" and "Spartacus" want to escape their situations, or change them in some fundamental way, but they usually have to give up a lot to alter their circumstances just a little.
I'm a fan of both shows because they explore these ideas about power and autonomy via a roster of compelling characters, all of whom are forced to interact in close quarters. In both "Downton's" and "Spartacus'" respective hothouse environments, characters in very different classes are constantly negotiating what kinds of intimacy and intimidation are allowed and what kinds aren't. Sure, "Spartacus" may be the less polite drama, but it's no less moving once you get invested in its characters' quests for love, safety and a few scraps of emotional fulfillment.
Still don't believe the shows have a lot in common? Seriously, they do:
- They both value language and boast their own distinctive syntaxes. The Dowager Countess' elegantly vicious put-downs are every bit as memorable as the Shakespeare-meets-the-street rhythms of "Spartacus."
- They're both period pieces that don't feel musty or completely removed from modern life. We may not live in manor houses or ancient villas, but we can relate to the characters' desires to better themselves and control their own fates.
- They both boast memorably complex characters who can surprise you with their deviousness or their unexpected altruism. Sure, a few of the characters on both shows are one-dimensional, but both shows also have such large ensembles that it's not hard to find protagonists to care about.
- They both embrace the soapier aspects of their stories (Love! Betrayal! Unexpected deaths! Illicit sexytimes!). Neither is re-inventing the wheel when it comes to their genres (i.e., period drama and gladiator epic), but at their best, they are excellent examples of their genres and expertly dispense cliffhangers, declarations of love, confrontations and sly humor.
- They're both strongly serialized, and in that regard, I'd say "Spartacus" is the more finely crafted affair. "Downton," which I remain addicted to despite some its Season 2 wobbles, looks classier, but this season, as I said in my review, it lurches from story to story somewhat ungracefully. "Spartacus," on the other hand, is one of the most meticulously constructed shows I've ever seen. Really.
I could go on comparing the two shows despite their wildly different reputations. "Downton Abbey," after all, is the darling of the "We Love Quality TV" brigade and airs on PBS. It's so proper that it practically serves you crumpets through your TV screen (and if it did, I wouldn't object).
As for "Spartacus," I'm betting all you know about it is that people regularly get naked on it ... when they're not slicing each other up in the gladiator's arena, that is. The show's reputation as pulpy almost-porn isn't really deserved (though sure, it's sexy, exciting and expertly embraces its more melodramatic aspects). But I'd be a fool not to at least acknowledge what those who haven't seen the show think of it.
And there are substantial differences between the shows, aside from the fact that Spartacus is unlikely to take afternoon tea and Carson the butler is unlikely to rip another servant's throat open (as much as he might want to). The "Downton" servants and their employers are far from equals, but at least the servants get paid (a little) for their seemingly endless work. The slaves on the Starz show don't have it quite that easy. "Spartacus: Vengeance," which arrives Jan. 27, depicts what happens to slaves that run off: They're ruthlessly hunted down and killed. Even the Dowager Countess would think that's a bit much.
So they're not exactly the same shows, but the best parts of both dramas depict intelligent characters who are trapped in situations that are not of their own making. Lady Mary Crawley would be a CEO or a world-class something in a society that allowed women of her class to work outside the home, but "Downton" perceptively depicts how her circumscribed life has made her frustrated and somewhat bitter.
As for "Spartacus," since it began in 2010, the show has subtly made a very powerful point about how oppressive regimes eventually cause their own downfalls. When a society has a cancer at the center of it (in this case, slavery), that disease will eventually infect every single aspect of the society and bring it down from the inside; that appears to be the show's stealth thesis. The slave-owning characters on "Spartacus" have many believable flaws, but the chief one is an inability to see how treating other human beings like easily replaced furniture is killing their own souls.
In that respect, I'll take this comparison further and make the case that "Spartacus" is actually the more challenging drama. "Spartacus" doesn't just examine the Roman status quo, it violently assaults it. "Downton," on the other hand, makes the case that, though some social rules were a little unfair, all things considered, things were pretty jolly back in the day, weren't they?
Sure, the PBS drama shows that English society during and after World War 1 was evolving, but, especially in "Downton's" second season, it would appear that creator Julian Fellowes believes the semi-feudal system depicted on the show just needed a little tweaking around the edges. The servants, for the most part, love their employers and make enormous sacrifices for them. And the wealthy Crawley family, for the most part, are depicted as kindly and tolerant employers. Though Lord Grantham makes a couple of mistakes this season, he is, generally speaking, the most positive advertisement the English aristocracy could hope for.
"Downton" flirts -- quite literally -- with more revolutionary ideas, but the show's radical Irish chauffeur exists mainly as an inappropriate boyfriend for Lady Sybil, not as a man whose ideas are worth taking seriously and are representative of the social ferment of the times. That the fusty ruling classes -- which dragged Europe through a ghastly war in which millions died -- should be more or less in place when the war ends is a basic assumption that "Downton" never really challenges.
"Spartacus," of course, depicts a more brutal society in which slavery was a fact of life. So it's not unexpected that it has a less gentle take on power dynamics than "Downton" does, but I wish the Starz show would get some credit for being not just politically aware, but psychologically astute. Just as "Downton" makes you feel for the lowliest housemaid's plight, "Spartacus" creator Steven DeKnight makes the audience understand what it would feel like to be denied true intimacy and autonomy. That's really the whole point of the show, even though "Spartacus" never forgets it's entertainment.
No one is in any danger of misunderstanding what "Downton Abbey" is about: It exudes class from every well-scrubbed, highly polished pore. But a lot gets lost in translation when people judge "Spartacus" by its racy promos and sweaty posters. Yes, "Spartacus" does depict a lot of sex, but most of those sexual situations are transactions, designed to get the characters something they want. True love -- without agendas -- does exist in this universe, and it is highly prized, but it's a rare pleasure these characters (rich or poor) don't get to experience often. And when an entitled character takes what he or she wants sexually, with no regard for the humanity of the slave they're demeaning, the show makes a point to depict the psychological fallout of those acts. In ancient Rome, just as in the tweedy English countryside, thoughtless acts have consequences.
Maybe neither of these shows is your cup of tea, and that's fine. But it would make me sad if fans of one show didn't at least check out the other based on some preconceived notions. Whatever you think these shows are going to be like, once you get involved in the human dramas and complex relationships they depict, your first impressions may fall away. And you'll see that the doughty Dowager Countess of Grantham and the sword-wielding gladiators aren't so different after all.
They all certainly know something about vengeance.