Secondly, you should remember that the Great Houses of the English Countryside are now museums and tourist attractions. The feudal mode of production depicted in the story was not economically viable. Whether Matthew Crawley and/or Tom Branson "modernize" or not, the Crawley's are not going to be able generate enough surplus out of the small scale farm production of essentially tenant farmers to sustain even a fraction of their life style.
And every time you turn around, the younger people "in service" are headed off to get real jobs. The housemaid who became a secretary, for example. I predict that Daisy will be gone soon, to manage a farm, instead of being an 'assistant cook'.
That social system is creaking and wheezing and running down. It runs on a shared circle of false consciousness. The Crawley's are convinced that they are exercising power responsibly; Robert is conscientious to a fault. They are surrounded by servants who feed that illusion by their rituals of sycophancy. In reality, they are in a bubble, kept afloat by the infusions of cash from other inheritances. Their only real economic work is plotting bloodlines, wills and entails.
While feudalism extracts its wealth from grinding peasant labor, the virginity of daughters is the coin by which it is circulated. The immediate crisis of the Crawley's is set in motion by the fact that their oldest daughter was date-raped by a Turkish playboy. Or was she seduced? The text is unclear, but what matters is that it has economic significance. Soiled, her marriage prospects are slim and without her production of a male heir, the title and Downton Abbey itself would be separated from the family and the money her American mother brought to the table.
When the virginity of aristocratic daughters are the coin of the realm, the whole society enters into an icebox of sexual repression and misery.
People thought it was so cute when Carson carried about the little Sybil. People thought it was touching when Carson, stood behind Lord Grantham, and beamed at Mary Crawley as she descended the stairs in her wedding gown. Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes sacrificed all of their chances for romantic and familial love, and sexual happiness, to preserve an asexuality of service, which only served the purpose of maintaining the house as above scandal.
Why are we all so attracted to this era, these people who are leading lives so different than ours. One reason is that we are, here in the colonies, still attracted to great wealth and to the lifestyle they lead. Human nature, being what it is, leads us to want what others have accumulated.
But I think that we are also attracted to the depiction of the responsible and beneficent wealthy, like Robert Crawley, the seventh Earl of Grantham. He is fair, and kind, and responsible, and not at all indifferent to the lives of those who serve him. When Mrs. Hughes feared cancer, the Crawley's assured her that she would be taken care of forever, no matter what happened. Ah, would it be so that the 1% in our times seemed so caring; they spend their days complaining that the middle class has too much health insurance, not too little. And that the $1200 average monthly pension that Social Security provides is breaking the country. We all hated the possibility that Mary, dear sweet and sour Mary, might have to marry Ruppert Murdoch, I mean Richard Carlisle, but he is running our country now.
And don't get me started on poor Mr. Travis, the kindly Vicar, the agent of Christ's love for the poor, is too sad to contemplate. Actually, a little chilling to anyone who does parish ministry.
Don't get me wrong -- I have watched three seasons of Downton Abbey in a month, and I intend to watch it Season 4 as soon as it is on the air. I just recommend a little Wodehouse on the side.