Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Alternative World of Downton Abbey

The last soap opera I can remember was possibly Ma Perkins. I had the measles or mumps back in the 30s and followed it for 3-4 days. As I recall, nothing much ever happened. One could listen to the radio show in October and pick it back up in March. There in the speaker of my RCA was pie was still cooling on the window sill and Uncle George hadn’t quite hauled all the firewood in from the shed.

These days about 8-10 million mostly Boomers and parents of Boomers watch Masterpiece Theater currently running season five of Downton Abbey. Unlike those old soaps Downton is filled with action of a sort. Somehow we hold in our ever-diminishing minds the dangling threads of twenty characters. Such goings-on! We can’t get enough of that wonderful stuff. What is it about these folks that demands our avid attention? It is certainly a testimony to the script, performances, polish and production values. And more.

My guess is we are seduced by their tidy universe; the civility of a world in which everyone knows his/her place. Quibbles and squabbles, yes, and any number of small spots of bother but nothing to upset the order. This has a powerful pull on our society, feeling as we do un-moored and dislocated where change has never before been so accelerated. An hour a week at Downton is almost enough to anchor us.

Enter, Ms. Bunting. Is she not obnoxious? Inappropriate? How dare she speak to M’Lord that way at the table? The woman has no breeding! No couth! She’s a flaming revolutionary! In a few sentences she has brought down Downton. Off with her head!

Yet she speaks truth to power. She is Michael Moore seated at the Koch brother’s dinner party. She represents the shock of abrupt change. We won’t have it. We want genteel, imperceptible movement, not alien ideas and certainly not at the sacred table. It reminded me of the phrase the Warren Court used when knocking down the Separate but Equal doctrine, with all deliberate speed.

(Bunting might have also reference Basil Bunting, the British poet of that time who was jailed as a conscientious objector during World War I. He also wrote Modernist poetry which was to overthrow the prevailing mode.)

As an audience we are being prepared for the dissolution of the Edwardian ways. Lord Grantham is about to learn how to put on his own pajamas. Yet we resist as Lord Grantham resists. We don’t want it in our face as Ms. Bunting would have it. It would be too much of a stretch to say we are the Russian émigrés living in exile from the familiar life before the upheaval. However, gone is civil discourse, Ma Perkins, Rockwellian images, good wars, the Brooklyn Dodgers, double features without gore, rhyming poetry, and melodic music.

The very fact that Downton calls itself an Abbey recalls a time of great change. Abbeys were named as refuges for nuns and monks during the reign of the Catholic Church. Certainly this is more of a manor house than a mere abbey but the name sticks as a reminder of another period of dissolution.

I suppose every age has its turmoil. Just when we think we’ve got it in our grasp it slips away. We have one foot in Downton and the other leaving its print in the unknowable and forbidden moors. If Downton is no more than soap it at least washes away our worries for the moment and we walk away feeling cleansed.

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