The Better Half and I just finished the final episode of “Downton Abbey”‘s second season last night. Or rather, I finished it and he dozed off midway through (as is his wont) and will have to go back and watch it again. It was marvelous, and I can’t wait for the next season. [Confidential to RW: we’ll have to talk soon and compare notes, now that I’m all caught up.] It’s some of the best television I’ve seen in ages.
Before I go on, I should warn that the rest of this post gets a little spoiler-adjacent for anyone who hasn’t seen all the episodes yet. While I won’t be giving away any major plot points, I will discuss the arcs of a couple of different characters. (Yes, obviously the title of this post and the accompanying picture do give something away right off the bat, but as it’s revealed in the first episode it seemed OK to me.) Consider yourselves alerted.
There is much to recommend the show. The acting is uniformly superlative. The writing is fantastic. The setting is opulent and a feast for the eyes. But one thing struck me as I watched last night — “Downton Abbey” has the best gay character I’ve seen yet, certainly on TV. I am, of course, referring to the treacherous footman Thomas.
Fans of the show might be very surprised to read that. Thomas is, in addition to being gay, a complete bastard. He is conniving and nasty and utterly self-centered. When he gets jilted in the very first episode, it’s his most sympathetic moment in the whole series so far. From that point on, he’s a total louse. O’Brien, the lady’s maid who is the other main unsympathetic character, is given some redemptive moments in the second season. Thomas? Not so much.
And that’s as it should be, from my perspective. The character really is poisonously self-interested and needlessly cruel. Perhaps in the coming season some kinder aspect will emerge, but I find him refreshingly realistic and admire the writers for keeping him consistent. But what makes him such a great gay character is that his homosexuality is given no more or less weight than any of the character traits of anyone else on the show. It is referenced only insofar as it is relevant to the plot, which does not otherwise revolve around it. In fact, as far as the storyline goes it’s more salient that Thomas is hateful than that he’s gay.
As it happens, the only other gay character I can think of who is treated similarly is also a very recent creation — Max on “Happy Endings.” That show is a sitcom that revolves around the love lives of its characters to a great extent, so his gayness is brought up more than Thomas’s. But it’s just one aspect of his character, and in plenty of episodes it doesn’t get brought up at all. Plus, his love life has the same ups and downs of the other unmarried characters on the show. He’s allowed to have boyfriends, get dumped, etc.
Contrast that with the characters Will and Jack on “Will & Grace,” a show I liked at first and came to despise. Will, despite being a gorgeous man with a successful career and a great apartment, was strangely sexless for a ridiculously long time; he didn’t get a boyfriend until after I’d given up on the show entirely. And Jack was such a mess of stereotypes and tics that he set my teeth on edge. It was a minstrel show, with the blackface swapped out for jazz hands. Every episode was all gay, all the time. To the extent that it showed mainstream America that gays aren’t super-scary leather daddies out to recruit young children into a life of disco music and flower arranging, I’m grateful for it. But it was a way station, not a destination.
Even the characters Cam and Mitchell on “Modern Family” have their drawbacks. Don’t get me wrong — I love that show, and I love their relationship. And I recognize that the show’s schtick is based on playing up the quirks of each of the couples — the May-December pair (with a Latina wife!), the brittle suburbanites. I get it, and I respect the fact that Cam and Mitchell are gay parents isn’t given more attention than Phil’s goofiness or Gloria’s feistiness, and that they’re given more to work with than just their gayness. (Cam in particular, as a football playing sometime clown from Missouri with pretensions of being a singer, has a lot going on.) But still, they’re very much the gay parents in the ensemble.
Not Thomas. He’s not the gay footman who is also duplicitous and arrogant. He’s the duplicitous, arrogant footman, who also happens to be gay. Which is just exactly how it should be.