Friday, January 20, 2012

Help! I'm a prisoner in Downton Abbey!

I missed the first season of the excellent PBS (by way of BBC) television series Downton Abbey, but in this day when the Internet can provide instant gratification, failing to catch the series when it is first shown is no barrier to its enjoyment. After all the acclaim and awards it received in its first season, I decided that perhaps I was missing something, and that I needed to catch up on it by watching online in order to prepare myself for the second season which started a couple of weeks ago. I didn't quite make it in time for the start of the season, but this week I finished watching season one and then went on to watch the two episodes already shown in season two. Now I'm all caught up and ready for Sunday night's showing of the third episode. I'll be there because I am well and truly hooked!

What is it about this upstairs, downstairs soap opera of the veddy, veddy rich of early twentieth century England and their faithful (and not so faithful) servants that so captures our imagination? It is a world and a century away from us, a very much simpler time when social conventions that had not evolved so much since Jane Austen's era were still in force. But it is also a time when everything was about to change and I think that may be one of the things that attracts us to this story.

The telephone had just been invented and had come into at least limited use in the homes of the rich. Electricity was the newest thing going. The nights of lives lit by romantic candlelight are numbered. One of the funniest scenes in the first season was Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess' reaction to the first electrically lighted chandelier at Downton. She shields her eyes with her fan against the brightness. That might be a metaphor for all the changes coming to Downton.

Lady Edith, the middle daughter, learns to drive an automobile. Lady Sibyl, the youngest daughter, is embroiled in the politics of the time and especially in the campaign for women's rights. The Crawleys of Downton Abbey are caught up in all these changes and both welcome them on some level and at the same time try to shield themselves from and sometimes hold back the tide of the changes. We see all these decent people at what may be termed the beginning of the modern era and they are coping with dramatic upheavals in their way of life, things that we very much take for granted in our daily lives, and we can empathize with them because we, too, are beset by constant, never-ending change at an even faster pace.

I think that is the key to Downton Abbey's attraction for us. Empathy. We have two families, the Crawleys upstairs and the servants led by Mr. Carson, the butler, and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, downstairs, and both families are comprised of mostly sympathetic characters. Yes, we have some stinkers belowstairs in O'Brien, the lady's maid, and Thomas, the footman. And upstairs the daughters, Lady Mary and Lady Edith engage in some truly snarky and downright cruel antics at the expense of each other. Their sibling rivalry is a nasty thing to watch, but even so, their characters are essentially lovable and we hope for a detente between the two and happiness for both. Most of all, we hope that Mary and Matthew will finally recognize that they are meant for each other and will just get on with it!

But this year, we are in war and all the able-bodied men of Downton are finding their way into the army and onto the fields of France. What will this week bring? You can be sure that I'll be sitting in front of my television Sunday night at 8:00 to find out.

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