CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's a long way -- in geographical distance and creative quality -- from the down and dirty world of "Buckwild" to the rarefied world of "Downton Abbey," but the two TV series have one thing in common, apart from both having recent season premieres. Both perpetuate social and class stereotypes.
The criticism of "Buckwild" has been well-meaning, although it has contributed to the show's notoriety and may have helped boost its ratings. Reality TV is a proven formula. Although they won't admit it, viewers like to see people behaving badly.
The "Buckwild" characters exist, of course, but they would not be doing what they're doing if MTV were not there to tape it. They are playing exaggerated, cartoonish versions of themselves, with scripted situations and confrontations. It's "reality" in name only.
The social stereotyping in "Downton Abbey" is more subtle and, at least on the surface, less offensive. But both series send a similar message about barriers to social mobility. Whether you're living on welfare in a broken-down trailer, or are a servant in a great English house, or own the house and employ the servants, you're pretty much stuck where you are. It's tough to change position on the social and economic ladder.
The rigid class structure of early 20th century British society is represented by the limited horizons of the servants of "Downton Abbey." Some were literally born into service, the sons and daughters of butlers, footmen and housemaids. Others took one modest step up from tenant farm to domestic service.
Their ambitions are also limited. The footmen want to be butlers and valets, the kitchen maids cooks. They can apply for a similar-level position in a larger house, or a more responsible position in a smaller house. But they remain in domestic service.
It's a system where the aristocracy regulates the labor market. You can't move without a recommendation from your employer. "Oh, I see you have a letter of reference from Lady Posonby Fairfax Trevelyan of Wycliff Manor. I know the family well. You will do."