Monday, January 31, 2011

Downton Abbey

I’m kinda down today.  Downton Abbey, a series from Britain’s ITV, ended its run on PBS Masterpiece last night.  Man, did I enjoy that show!  Four episodes, one a week, just gave me a taste for this story.  I am glad to read that a second season will start production in March.  It will be on the air in Britain starting in the Fall and ending around Christmas of this year.  That means I’ll have to wait until sometime later in 2012 to see it.  Something to look forward to, for sure.  Downton Abbey is the story of the Earl of Grantham and his family and servants, all of whom live in the building that gives the series its name.  It’s a more sophisticated, less schmaltzy Upstairs Downstairs.  It shows life in the great house as its lived by the upstairs family and their downstairs servants.
The series shows Britain’s class system as the series creator, Julian Fellowes, believes it to have existed in England’s great houses during the period from 1912 through 1914.  Philip Kennicott, in Saturday’s Washington Post, wrote an article about the series that spoke mainly about the house used as Downton Abbey, a house Mr. Kennicott rightly considers to be one of the main characters of the series.  He writes: “Highclere [the name of the house that is used for the Abbey] may not be the most important character in Downton Abbey, but it is the perfect setting for a drama that, despite its rich characterization and excellent dialogue, is weirdly regressive about class. Unlike a dramatization of a Jane Austen novel, which is a historical document of the era it satirizes, Downton Abbey is made up from scratch yet celebrates (perhaps unintentionally) the class system it purports to deconstruct.”

Beni, Becky, and I all loved the stories in Downton Abbey.  I’ve been wondering why.  For me, at least, I think the show’s appeal is the structured world it puts before me.  Everybody in the world depicted in the series knows from the minute of their birth essentially what their path in life will be.  There aren’t many questions about what they’ll do when they grow up.  Once in the Abbey, the family members each have their own rigid parts to play in life, and the servants know and accept their jobs as lifetime vocations in service of, not only the Earl of Grantham’s family, but the great British empire that still held sway over a quarter of the planet.  As frustrating as such immovability was for both the family and the staff, there obviously was security and even pride to be had in fulfilling their specific roles and expectations.

I’ve always known that I have a predilection for such structured lives.  The things I accomplished during my time with the friars were a direct result of my comfort with and acceptance of the life the friars designed for me.  It was rigid but also gave me a lot of freedom to do what I had to do.  Lucky for me, for most of the time with them, what the friars wanted and what I wanted were the same thing.

I know men who have spent a career in the military who have flourished in a similarly structured environment.  Once someone told me that he believed military life made men remain teenagers, always under the relatively benign parental control of senior officers.  I disagree.  I believe what such rigid structures provide is a creative environment for people who don’t want to spend a lot of time worrying about what they consider the inconsequential issues of their lives.

The irony of my life is that I have been making it up as I go along, just the opposite of what I thought would happen to me when I went to the friars.  I’ve had to find ways of living and doing things that work for me, even though they might work for no one else.  I suspect that is the universal challenge of life. I also suspect that organizations like armies and religious orders can’t help their members escape that challenge entirely.

The appeal of stories like Downton Abbey, maybe, is that it offers people like me a respite from the creativity that our lives require and lets us dream of a non–existent life where all life's big questions are answered authoritatively for us.

Read Philip Kennicott's article at

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