Once again, the television series “Downton Abbey” has taken over my Facebook feed. The costumes, the drama, the romance, and—possibly most important—the “house” has swept many of us off our feet as we spend a few more hours living the dream. Precisely what that dream is, I’m not entirely sure.
I’m pretty sure I’m not interested in living during World War I—before vaccines and during a time when a woman’s inheritance dictated her choice of husbands. And I know I’m not interested in living the lives of the servants. But I’ve always enjoyed a good period drama—Pride and Prejudice, A Room with a View, and Sense and Sensibility offer insight into a world of social restriction and social graces that I cannot quite imagine. Less respectably, my college fave “Days of Our Lives” also has a lot in common with “Downton”: scheming bad guys, unbelievable recoveries from injuries and illnesses, romantic triangles, beautiful people, and lives noticeably unbothered by children.
Last week I watched another kind of house-centered movie. The Queen of Versailles follows Jacqueline Siegel and her husband in the process of building what was supposed to be America’s largest single-family home, a 90,000-square-foot monstrosity they claim is inspired by Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles in Paris. Jackie, a former beauty queen and model, is married to the much older timeshare magnate, David Siegel. In the midst of filming the documentary, the economic collapse of 2008 triggered financial difficulties for the couple and the eight children they are raising.
The Queen of Versailles exposes the incredible excesses that the family takes for granted. A whole staff of nannies and other domestic employees, material goods beyond measure, and, one can only assume, cosmetic surgery on demand. At the same time, there’s a hint of human nature that, if we’re honest, we can all identify with: the desire to have more, no matter how much we have, and the fear of losing what we do have. Strained relationships, financial stresses, and fear of the future are common experiences.
Watching “Downton,” we sympathize with the Granthams and Crawleys as they agonize over the financial demands of their great estate even as they wait to be dressed by their servants. We hope that they will find ways to keep the tradition alive. At the same time, we feel some smugness that we do not uphold the injustices of that era; we empathize with the overworked servant class that has no option for upward mobility.
But watching The Queen of Versailles, we find satisfaction in watching upwardly mobile billionaires get their comeuppance. Why the difference? Is it just because Downton’s Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) has such great, funny lines, while at times Jackie and David Siegel seem like the wealthier version of Al and Peg Bundy in the old sitcom “Married with Children”? Or is it because, in truth, we tend to be more like the Siegels than we care to admit, and we distance ourselves with scorn?
Both demonstrate the tight grip our possessions can gain on us. One dresses that grip in respectability, while the other shows it for the folly that it is. In the end, I’ll keep watching “Downton Abbey” for its entertainment value. But if you’re looking for a deeper (albeit tackier) glimpse into human nature, you might want to watch Versailles.