Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Downton Abbey. Why Do I Love It?

I stumbled upon the British production of Downton Abbey about six months ago. Pam and I watched the second episode of season two first and were at first thoroughly confused. Being American, we didn't know the difference between a house maid and a lady's maid, hadn't a clue what a footman was, let alone a valet. Nevertheless we instantly were mesmerized by the stunning beauty and mystery of the estate house, and even more the richness of the story. Before long we were hooked. After the end of season two, I immediately went out and dropped $30 on the complete season one DVD collection with the bonus DVD about the making of Downton Abbey. Season three doesn't air until September so we have been reduced to watching reruns whenever we can. Its been quite awhile since I have been so invested in a television program. So, the question becomes, what's the attraction? Why do we love Downton Abbey so much?

First of all, even though the setting is grand, half of the show is actually filmed on location at the grand house itself, and it's a period piece, taking place in the years leading up to WWI, it is after all a glorified soap-opera. What American show can it be fairly compared with? Well, that's just it. There IS no American equivalent. Our soap-operas are things like Parenthood (very good) and 24 (awesome). But those shows are present day dramas which we can all identify with. Downton Abbey is about a time and place lost in dusty history books. It's pre-war Great Britain at it's peak of power. The Lord of Grantham presides over an inherited estate. He is a member in good standing of the aristocracy. The servants live in the big house but are employees, and in most every way that matters, are second class citizens. But, unlike Hollywood where all rich people are devious and all poor folks are virtuous, Downton Abbey presents all characters in all of their very human dimensions. Some of the "help" are indeed virtuous, but others are back-stabbing opportunists. The Grantham clan has a bit of everything from noble and dignified (Lord Grantham and Matthew Crawley) to petty and vicious (Ethel) to charmingly hilarious (the Dowager Countess). In other words, class and standing offer no guarantee of virtue. The servants in the house also run the gamut from treacherous and conniving( O'Brien and Thomas ) to sweet and noble(Anna) and everything in between. The producers of the show even present a gay character who isn't a 100%, gold-plated saint. In fact, this particular character is one of the biggest jerks in the entire cast, something that never happens in anything produced in Hollywood.

But there's something else. Downton Abbey exists in a time that didn't extend basic human rights to many of it's citizens. Women couldn't vote, workers had few of the protections of the modern welfare state, and the very rich had a far easier time navigating the justice system than did the working classes. I don't wax nostalgic for everything from Britain in 1914 by any means...and yet..There is something about the show that stirs in me a feeling of loss. In that day, there were a great deal of things that both classes shared, primary among them an understanding of the essential value of personal character. One's word, and one's honor were valued beyond price. There were clearly understood rules of conduct that if violated amounted to a indelible stain on one's character. To see such agreement of the importance of character throughout the many varied characters on the show is refreshing. The lack of any such agreement in today's culture is glaring by contrast.

I eagerly await season three and will soon become lost in the twists and turns that will surely buffet the great house. Even though its all about a past that is long gone, it does save me from the present nightmare of Jersey Shore, The Bachelor, and Celebrity Apprentice.