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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Review - Downton Abbey!

 Several years ago, the power of Netflix brought this obscure British drama to the forefront of the American viewing public. I remember a long, boring summer trolling the drama section for something clean to watch (quite a challenge then, and more so today). Downton Abbey kept circling through the list, enticing me with its cover photo of a grand English house filled with stuffy aristocrats and their nosey servants. It looked somewhat soap-operish to me, and besides, I never have been a huge Elizabeth McGovern fan, so I initially resisted the urge to delve into hours of viewing. But, eventually I gave in and watched the entire first season in one sitting! I was hooked, and it didn’t take long for several of my family members to be hooked as well. Over time, the word spread, and now the award-winning Downton Abbey is all the rage, even rivaling the Super Bowl for obligatory Sunday night viewing in many American homes (but not this one!)
So what is the appeal? Besides the grand estate set in the early 1900s England and the pomp and tradition accompanying the aristocratic English life, there must be something more to this British serial that is able to entice many American viewers away from the plethora of entertainment choices available today. Certainly it isn’t the boring Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) or his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), or their snarky daughters, Ladies Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil. And it can’t be due to the Dowager Countess Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith) and her feisty bantering with Cousin Isobel Crawley, as funny as it may be. And let’s not forget about the servants who, at many times, are more intriguing than their masters. First, there is the stodgy Mr. Carson (the butler) and the gentle but firm Mrs. Hughes (the housekeeper), the zany Mrs. Patmore and her sidekick Daisy (the cooks), Thomas, the rebellious and tormented under-butler/footman/valet, and then Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) (lady’s maid and chief valet, respectively) who battle one obstacle after another to consummate their romance. And there are more. In fact, the cast of characters is too numerous to count, and yet, not a one of them are interesting enough on their own to cause one to watch. So again, what is the appeal?
Some attribute it to the writing by the highly touted Julian Fellows, who won an Oscar for best original screenplay for Gosford Park. He certainly has an eye for historical detail and has used it in a marvelous way to give us commoners a glimpse behind the veil that separates 20th century English royalty from the rest of the world. Who hasn’t visited one of those glorious palaces and castles in Europe and wondered what life would’ve been like to be master of such a domain? Having lived in London for five years, I can say that the allure never dies. There are many of us who long to know what everyday life must be like for someone like the Queen of England, who was born into power, prestige, and wealth that includes a cadre of servants at one’s beck and call. While the Downton Abbey estate is not Buckingham Palace, it is about as close as most of us will get to sneaking that peek into a world that only a privileged few experience.
With any great TV serial, the allure is the characters. Downton Abbey can best be described as a wonderful ensemble piece where its enormous cast, with their quirks and idiosyncrasies, provide a rich tapestry of interactions in a sequestered, ornate world that has long since passed away. Doesn’t sound like great entertainment, but it is. The stilted, robotic life of the Granthams and their staff intrigues us; it is truly a surreal cosmos, where the house itself is a business that employs its hirelings for life, requiring strange and unsettling tasks, like putting on and taking off clothes, styling hair, brushing dust off suit lapels, shining shoes, serving food, and a number of other mundane tasks that most humans forego or do own their own. But in 1900s aristocratic England, the notion of taking care of oneself is unthinkable, and so this world seems right and appropriate to its inhabitants, from the master down to the lowliest servant.
With the intrigue comes the surprise and delight when we see the humor and pain of life afflict these stoic people who do their best to keep a stiff upper lip. Their joy and suffering are a reminder that all people are the same, regardless of their power and influence or the size of their bank account. Wars, politics, sickness, death, rape, murder, and adultery confirm the truth that  the same problems we endure today are the challenges that any 20th century aristocrat faced during his or her time on earth. Despite the opulent décor, fine clothes and jewels, and gourmet fare, life for a lost Grantham is just as empty and vapid as any other lost soul who doesn’t have two nickels to rub together. Without God, all of this extravagance is just a vanity of vanities, void and without meaning.  This is a good reminder to us living in a time where people are clamoring for get-rich-quick opportunities and easy lottery wins. As the Bible says, the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.
For those of you out there who haven’t been introduced to Downton Abbey and its broad cast of wonderful characters, carve out a long weekend and get caught up on what all of America has been talking about. It is good quality entertainment that will introduce you to a world that educates, enlightens, and thoroughly entertains!

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