Last week, the news broke that Downton Abbey, the British drama about the titled residents of a major country estate and the people who work for them, will be adding its first black character: the London-born actor Gary Carr, who has a long British television resume, will play a jazz singer named Jack Ross. This is a notable development for Downton Abbey, which through three seasons has remained resolutely—if appropriate to its time period and setting—monochromatic. But the show’s decision is also part of a larger trend of overwhelmingly white shows that have made the decision to try to broaden their casting and their subject matter. And Downton Abbey can learn from Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy Girls, which responded to a firestorm of criticism over its whiteness by adding a character named Sandy (Donald Glover), a black Republican love interest for the main character, and AMC’s Mad Men, which in its sixth season has added two African-American characters and expanded its treatment of its characters reaction to the Civil Rights movement.
Downton Abbey, Girls, and Mad Men all differ in the extent to which their settings made the absence of black characters conspicuous or uncomfortable. A relatively secluded English country estate, close to a small town rather than London, would be less likely to have black British or immigrant residents than the capital itself, particularly in 1912. Mad Men has somewhat less excuse than Downton Abbey does, and a number of analysts have suggested that the version of Madison Avenue series creator Matthew Weiner and his collaborators have presented on the show actually suggests that women and African-Americans had made less progress in the advertising industry than they really had, particularly at the firm BBDO. And Girls, which was maligned as racist for having four white main characters, did better than its harshest critics suggested and worse than might have been realistic. The show, set in contemporary Brooklyn, did give its main character Hannah Horvath (Dunham) an Asian coworker at the publishing house where she was a long-time intern, but also relied on stereotyped portrayals of non-white secretaries and nannies, and gave its privileged characters a small, monochromatic social circle. Whether or not that was realistic, or whether or not that was a wise choice on Dunham’s part was a matter of how alienating an individual viewer found the decision, and how much one believed that relatively privileged Oberlin graduates might only have close friends of their same race.
Whether or not Weiner or Dunham felt obligated to have their shows respond to their critics on race, they both did so in ways that made black characters on-screen critics of the white main characters. Dawn (Teyonah Parris), Don Draper’s secretary, who became Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s first black employee in the first episode of the fifth season of Mad Men, told a friend she met for dinner this season of her white employers that “Everyone’s scared. Women crying in the ladies’ room. Men crying in the elevator. It’s like New Year’s Eve when they empty the garbage there. There’s so many bottles.” She spoke not just as an outsider to the office but for critics of Mad Men who have found the show alienating and offputting. And Sandy, after failing to finish one of Hannah’s essays on Girls, told her “It wasn’t for me.” When Hannah protested of the essay that “It’s for everyone,” the show was cleverly flipping the script. Sandy, the black character, was saying that a piece of art didn’t have to speak to everyone’s sensibilities, unlike critics of color of the show who were upset that it didn’t address their experiences, while it was Hannah, the white character, who was suggesting that Girls ought to be for everyone, contra many white critics’ defenses that the show’s strength lay in its particularity, and that it couldn’t possibly be reasonable to demand that it serve a universal function.
And both shows also made the introduction of characters of color as much about how white characters reacted to the expanded boundaries of their worlds as about how black characters reacted to the settings to which they were introduced. On Girls, Hannah’s sanctimonious liberalism may have armed her with a wealth of statistics about, say, black men and American prisons, but it left her with very little insight into how to treat Sandy like a person, rather than as an archetype. Her lecturing him about what his political beliefs ought to be, and inability to understand why he might be attracted to both Republicanism and her, ended their relationship, and sent Hannah on a downward spiral that lasted for much of the rest of the season. Mad Men spent its episode “The Flood” on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and in particular on the way that its white characters reacted to the dreadful news. Much of the drama came from the sudden exposure of the limits of their understanding, and what happened when they wanted to express outrage, sympathy to their black coworkers, and sensitivity in business transactions, but without the experience or knowledge of either black politics or the black individuals in their circles to calibrate their emotions appropriately, or to find the right words.
Mad Men and Girls haven’t done everything right, of course. Despite introducing Dawn at the beginning of the fifth season, Mad Men didn’t bother to develop her character until it became important that we know at least a little bit about her. This approach was in deliberate contrast to the kind of character development that the show invested in its white characters, seeding ideas that would pay off episodes or even seasons later. And Mad Men‘s treatment of the King assassination was less balanced and rich than it might have been because of it. And Girls essentially had Sandy disappear once he’d served his purpose, to criticize Hannah, and by extension, Lena Dunham, on behalf of members of the audience who were displeased with her and with the show. The way white people react to people of color is an important subject, and I’m glad to see both Mad Men and Girls address it, but I hope Downton can learn from their work, and make Jack Ross a person instead of simply a device.
So as Downton Abbey adds Jack Ross to its roster, it should do so cognizant of its setting, and with careful thought in mind to how its white characters will react to their own ignorance or lack of experience—and how Jack, as a full-formed person, will react to them. If Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) is to meet Jack in London as she builds a new life after the death of her husband Matthew (Dan Stevens), the show should consider why this relatively proper young mother might venture into the night club scene, and how she might react to the very different social mores and mix of people she finds there. If he’s to be part of rebellious Lady Rose MacClare’s (Lily James) efforts to break away from the strictures of her family, Downton Abbey will have to think about what it might mean for her to view Jack as a means rather than as a person, and what the consequences for her of such treatment might be. And if he’s to come to Downton itself, it’ll be entertaining and revealing to see how characters like Lord Grantham (Hugh Boneville) and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), who are rigid believers in the class system, respond to the introduction of a new element in their social environment. In other words, let’s hope that Downton Abbey is introducing a black character because of how his presence will expand the show’s creative possibilities, rather than because it will quell criticism.