Really, using the Titanic as the catalyst for the plot of Downton Abbey is brilliant. It’s shamelessly, fiendishly effective since everyone already knows that story so well. If anything, the Titanic backstory fades away too quickly. The brief, season two attempt to resurrect it through the cousin who survived the sinking—or did he?—seems to have foundered. Even for a show that’s a telenovela wolf dressed up as a Masterpiece Theater sheep, pulling out a disfigured amnesiac was a bit much. But who knows? Maybe he’ll come back as Lady Edith’s suitor yet, although only after benefitting from some kind of miraculous advance in plastic surgery. And why not, in a show that seems of be taking some scriptwriting tips from the book of books: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Matthew 11:5)
Perhaps this last point really drives the show’s Titanic theme. Julian Fellowes, while working on his other show, called out James Cameron for making First Officer William Murdoch into a villain in his Titanic. Fellowes makes sure we know that Cameron dishonored an officer and a gentleman. As a good D.A. watcher could tell you, there’s hardly any greater sin than this. The controversy, such as it is, could not be more telling. On Cameron’s Titanic, an upstairs / downstairs romance might drive the plot, and the sumptuous sets and costuming might feed our vicarious desires to see how the other half lives, but Leo DiCaprio’s steerage-class Irish immigrant is not just a heartthrob but a genuine populist hero. Downton Abbey’s Irish class rebel, Tom the chauffeur, can hardly compare. He might steal Lady Sybil but his revolutionary rabble rousing is just so much hot air and when push comes to shove, he dresses for dinner and sheds a tear for the aristocrats whose castle is burned down. Billy Zane’s Cal chasing after Leo with a gun through ballrooms filling with water might qualify as melodramatic fantasy but it’s clearly class war. We know whose side Cameron is on. Downton Abbey endlessly pantomimes keeping it real by playing the servants-as-people-who-deserve-to-be-treated-as-such card. Yet really this device is mostly employed to keep the aristocrats sympathetic characters. Thought experiment: what if Cameron were at the helm of the good ship Downton?