Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

OK, Team Edith, it's time to stand in solidarity

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2 So says Downton Abbey's perennially overlooked, undervalued Lady Edith on the morning of her wedding day. But as usual with this unfortunate girl, her little burst of happiness turns out to be a particularly cruel instance of dramatic irony. Yes, all eyes will finally be on the neglected second daughter -- just in time to see her get jilted (at the altar!) by the dithering Sir Anthony.

Prepared as I was for disaster by Edith's serial humiliations on the top-rated Brit melodrama, this latest instalment seemed a bit much. Yes, I know: Edith is not the most immediately lovable of the three Crawley sisters. But I am now firmly on Team Edith, to the point where the sight of smug Lady Mary makes me want to throw things at the telly.

(That, of course, is the perverse genius of Downton Abbey. It begs to be watched not in a polite PBS way but in a hooting, hollering, jeering, drinking-game kind of way, as if Masterpiece had collided with The Real Housewives of New Jersey, or Pretty Little Liars had been reshot with posh accents.)

Poor Lady Edith. On this side of the pond, she is frequently compared to Jan Brady, The Brady Bunch's quintessentially awkward, ignored middle child, who was overshadowed both by cutesy Cindy and super-popular Marcia. ("Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.") Likewise, Edith is neither as warm and impetuous as her Irish-chauffeur-marrying younger sister, Sybil, nor as coolly elegantly as her older sister, Mary.

Edith's rivalry with Mary is deep and devious, though not surprising, given that Mary is always walking around with that I-am-determined-to-be-unhappy look on her face, even though everything always goes her way. (Everything! Always!) Edith's first love, Patrick, was promised to Mary, who didn't even want him. Edith's subsequent string of no-hopers ultimately led to Sir Anthony.

And while he wasn't exactly Love Young's Dream -- the most passionate thing Sir Anthony could think of to say was, "I say, have you done something jolly with your hair?" -- he was hers, at least until the meddling of her family, whose objections to his age and war injury felt like a completely contrived plot device. (Since when do the English upper-classes mind socially strategic but not especially romantic marriages? Since never.)

Edith then resolved to be "a useful spinster," but the show wouldn't even give her that. Her parents once speculated that Edith might end up staying home and looking after them in their old age. "What a ghastly prospect," said her father.

Like so many aspects of this wildly exaggerated series, the ridicule of Edith has become practically comic. In one satire of Downton Abbey -- and there are several corkers -- Edith is introduced merely as "Daughter #2." In another, she's played by Fred Armisen. (Edith's supposed homeliness adds injury to insult. She always seems pointy-nosed and googly-eyed on the series, even though actress Laura Carmichael is actually quite attractive.)

Enough already. Show creator Julian Fellowes has already chucked historical accuracy, psychological plausibility and even the basic laws of probability. He's used the long-lost character gambit, the temporary paralysis ploy, the wrongly-convicted plot. At this point, even an evil-twin storyline doesn't seem out of the question. If Fellowes's writing decisions are arbitrary, why can't he arbitrarily give Edith a break?

Perhaps Fellowes is punishing Edith because she is the visible violation of his view of the natural aristocracy. Mary, with her chilly hauteur, effortlessly imposes her will on the world with the slight raising of an eyebrow. Edith is always muddling through and making do, always trying too hard, always seen to be trying too hard. Edith is, in a word, middle class.

And Fellowes is a bit of a snob. Perhaps that's why last week's episode rewarded Mary with a convenient random inheritance by way of Matthew's sacrificial fiancée, Lavinia (whose heart Mary helped break). Meanwhile, Edith, in all her pathetic eagerness, got crushed. Again.

The steep decline in the quality of Downton Abbey's scripts since the first season has been ascribed to Fellowes's pandering to his audiences, particularly his massive American following. In fact, Fellowes seems to be chasing after those big American ratings the way the impoverished British gentry once chased after Yankee heiresses and their huge manufacturing fortunes.

Fellowes understands that democratic Americans fawn over the aristocracy, even more so than the class-bound English do, which might be why regal, headstrong Mary keeps getting her way. But Americans also love an underdog. The anti-Mary backlash has been building on the Internet for some time. Maybe with last week's mean-spirited dashing of Edith's modest hopes the pro-Edith movement will finally gain some traction.

Come on, Edith fans -- and I know you're out there. Let's stand in solidarity with our poor misunderstood sister. Let's speak out for the disdained and the disregarded. And let's do something jolly with our hair.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 E2

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