TV Crack: Downton Abbey

You’re in one of two camps on Downton Abbey (DA), the relatively new serial on PBS’ Masterpiece Theater; don’t know what it is or are completely addicted. I’m in the latter and never could have guesses I would be. For the uninitiated, DA chronicles the life and times of Lord and Lady Grantham in turn of the century (well, 1912-1920s so far) England. Lord Grantham is pretty much a conservative Lord, desperately hanging on to that which has allowed the aristocracy of a dwindling British Empire; tradition. And doing so in the face of a rapidly changing England. He and his family live in Downton Abbey; a regal castle for all intents and purposes, staffed by butlers, footmen, maids…the lot. It is reminiscent of the 1970’s program Upstairs/Downstairs, but with a modern coat of paint and cinematography. The series uses historical context to impact the lives of all if the abbey’s denizens very effectively.

But why am I, a middle-aged, American, straight guy so addicted? Sure, I, like many of my ilk, are super fans of History in general, and miss the days when the History Channel actually showed some History (compared to the vile crap they show now; Pawn Stars I’m looking at you and sneering). However, the show is melodramatic at its best, and down write sudsy at its worst. And those are the only bad points. The good points are many; competent acting, beautiful cinematography, elegant costumes, and most importantly, the ever-present rules of class. I think it is this above all else that attracts me to the show; the constant juxtaposition of the upper and lower or servant classes and the constant straining and or blurring of those lines. Every character in the show is constantly at war with tradition and progress at the same time. The traditions of dress and etiquette for the upper class residents, the Crawley and Grantham families, are the most fascinating and comforting for me, and yet they are so very foreign.

A good example of how DA plays on this is in the introduction of Matthew Crawley, the heir-apparent to DA, who was raised in a Middle-class world as an attorney, but finds himself struggling with the idea of a valet. For someone like me, the idea of making someone else clean up my mess or dress me is terrifying. Sure, I like to think it’s because I am beyond the idea of class, being a modern 21st-century man, but I think it’s more because of the intrusive nature of having someone be that closely involved in every aspect of your life. On the other side of it is poor Mr. Mosley, who was born and raised to be a servant. He does not take Matthew Crawley’s resistance to his services as a valet as a sign of a modern man who does not distinguish between himself and Mr. Mosley, but rather that he and his profession are reduced to the unnecessary. Instead of being thankful, as Matthew would guess, Mr. Mosley is hurt and dejected until he finally relents. Then the two fall into unison like the gears of a clockworks and all is right and well with the world. 

This makes me question myself the most, because I feel comforted and almost touched by the interaction between the two, but in reality it is so so wrong and goes against everything I believe as an American. I would never want a valet, or so I tell myself. I would feel guilty every time I saw a maid come into my room and light the fire or make the bed. Of course this is because I was brought up to fend for myself and do my own dirty work, but could I become very used to it and how quickly? Once I were part of that world, and considered an aristocrat, by whatever fantastical means that would occur, would I not relinquish those middle-class values using the excuse that the poor maid and valet need a job too?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not letting that little dilemma ruin the show and can’t wait til next Sunday when it comes on again. And I usually attribute this kind of passion for a TV show with the fact that I usually find out later that the show was worth watching, as is the case here. I didn’t start watching until last week and have since caught up, watching two seasons, three episodes at a time, in order to catch up with the current season. I  love that as you get to see the character arc at close range rather than spread out over the tedious week of waiting. I was dumb enough, (or lucky enough?) to miss The Wire, and was able to binge watch that through all five seasons; a glorious immersion into that world, which I value more than actually watching a current season.

Hell, at this point I’m seriously considering shutting off my cable in favor of waiting for the seasons of my favorite shows to end so I can watch the entire season in succession; I get that much joy out of that binge watching. And I’m not the only one, as Portlandia deftly made fun of in the case of Battlestar Gallactica in an episode where Fred and Carrie went so far as to track down the writers of the show (albeit they did not find the actual writer) and force him to write new episodes to feed their addiction. And wouldn’t that be a different world for me? I could free up my days and concentrate on important things like working out, spending time with family, pursuing an advanced degree, or working on that pesky Climate Change problem, sacrificing only a weekend or so to binge watch an entire season of Dexter in a junk food fueled, be-robed glory of decadence on my couch. If I switched to binge-watching in favor of crowding my week with skimpy one-hour doses of my favorite shows, I would, in the words of The Step Brothers, “have so much more room for activities.”

So thank you Downton Abbey. I think you’ve changed my life and that is just sad.

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