New York Times, November 16, 2017
The show you could never quite kick the habit of. The show you tried to replace with "The Crown" or "Call the Midwife" or "Peaky Blinders" or, God, "Poldark." But nothing, it turned out, could quite fibrillate your atrium like that first sight of Downton Abbey every Sunday evening, framed against a blue sky by a yellow lab's twitching haunches, and bringing with it the promise of gorgeous, onrolling misery for every character, upstairs and down.
Quietly, stubbornly, you kept the flame alive, trolling the show's Wiki forum, lunging at every report of a possible film version, plotting your make-believe itineraries to Highclere Castle, where most of the show was filmed. And now your faithfulness has its reward. The Abbey—or, at least, "Downton Abbey: The Exhibition"—has come back to you.
Housed in a Victorian-era building near Columbus Circle, this exhibition, which opens Saturday and runs through January, is a kind of theme park for re-addiction, a cleverly immersive experience mounted with the same exacting care as the show itself. It gives "Abbey" addicts both the short-term injection they need, and the reassurance that nothing from their favorite show has ever been thrown away.
All the old habitats, including Mr. Carson's pantry, the servants' dining room and Lady Mary's bedroom (faintly scandalous with its memory of Kemal Pamuk's coital demise) are painstakingly recreated, right down to the forks and spoons arranged just so on the Crawley dinner table. Behind the green baize door lies the servants' quarters just as you left them, along with Mr. Carson's old desk, complete with period-era bills and correspondence, and on the far wall, the immortal bell board, spontaneously erupting with some mysterious new summons from abovestairs.
The sense of arrested time grows particularly acute when you wander into Mrs. Patmore's kitchen, that realm of shining wooden surfaces and ceramic bowls and copper pots, one of which sits even now steaming on the stove. "It's all exactly the same," marvels the actress Sophie McShera, who has come to New York on promotional duties and who, as dim Daisy, cut up six seasons' worth of produce on these very chopping boards—with this very knife. Also on hand was Mrs. P herself (or Lesley Nicol, as the real world insists on calling her) who admitted to getting "a bit gulpy" at being surrounded again by the old props. (In the same breath, she confessed that she didn't do much actual cooking on the show. "I did what Gordon Ramsay did. I just tasted and swore.")
Where the exhibition surprises is in its high-tech flourishes, which include a CGI clip-loop with scenes from the original show in the library and interactive stations designed to test your fitness for a servant's position. (How fit were the actual servants, I'm trying to remember?) You might, in passing, spare a thought for poor Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), who was discombobulated not just by electricity but also by swivel chairs and who might have given up the ghost altogether at the sight of Mrs. Hughes's beaming hologram.
Needless to say, Violet occupies her own special place in the retrospective (though, sadly, Ms. Smith is not among the cast members who have filmed exhibition-specific greetings) and virtually every major character is granted some kind of plinth, supplemented by artifacts and interpretation. You can crank an old gramophone, if you like, or turn the wireless dial—or just stare at the creepy Crawley family portraits on the dining-room walls and wonder why you never really saw them before.
It's on the third and last floor that the exhibition gets down to business. By which I mean clothes. Under the ministrations of the costume designer Anna Robbins, we are borne back to Lord Grantham's hunting pinks, to Sybil's boho harem pants, to the felt hat Mary sported in her point-to-point. Stop, if you would, and admire Edith's first wedding gown, but please don't be so rude as to mention that she barely got to wear it because here's Edith's second wedding gown! A perfect flotilla of antique lace, rather more impressive than her sister Mary's, and for those of you who keeping score in that festering sibling rivalry, I'll just mention that Edith gets her own window in front of the building, and Mary doesn't.
Mr. Carson's elusive gong is waiting for you in the final video installation, where you can once more watch that nasty servant O'Brien place her bar of soap just so and you can catch poor Lady Sybil in the death throes of eclampsia and see Mr. Bates off to jail and see Mrs. Bates off to jail and watch Matthew motoring to his doom and somewhere in there World War I wandered through, remember? It's all over so fast, and before you know it, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is declaring in that rumbling bass of his: "Perhaps we'll meet again. You never know."
Which is either a plug for the "Downton" film—still in development, according to exhibition organizers (it is being presented by NBCU International Studios)—or a thinly disguised hope that you'll come back to feed your addiction. (And enlist more addicts, while you're at it. The exhibition will be traveling to other, still-to-be-announced cities in America.) In the meantime, to tide you over, there's the gift shop, a pond of Anglophilia that offers, among the expected Christmas crackers and Walkers shortbread, a range of licensed Downton merchandise: T-shirts and mugs and Christmas ornaments and, if you're feeling lonely, your very own bell board or, if you're feeling flush, a Royal Doulton figurine of Lord and Lady Grantham for $350.
Yes, in its own quiet and improbable way, "Downton" has become a franchise every bit as enduring, every bit as penetrative as "Star Wars" or "Iron Man." The only question that lingers as you stumble back outside is whether a franchise was what you really craved. Didn't the show's appeal always lie in how snugly its lifestyle lay outside your reach? You could no more ride to hounds or be presented at court or dine at the Ritz in a perfectly fitted sea foam gown with mermaid tail than you could declare yourself regent. Is it right that you should be able to buy your way in, tchotchke by tchotchke? Would you belong to a club that would have you as a member?
© Louis Bayard