Since the Super Bowl had limited appeal for a 49er fan, I think the high light of my television watching time was seeing a new episode of "Downton Abbey" on PBS. It's a program that brings American viewers the fun of watching members of the British elite behave stoically in stressful situations--like poor Lord Grantum (Hugh Bonneville) who doesn't have a direct male heir with his two male cousins going down on the Titanic in 1912.
What to do? Well, put on your Sam Browne belt and go to war! Except the old boy is past it--he had his war in South Africa against the Boers-- and nobody wants him at the front. But they would like his drawing rooms for an Army hospital since the Western Front keeps running up a big butcher's bill and a lot of brave men of all classes are filling up the other extra hospital spaces with what's left of their bodies and mental and psychic faculties.
Lord Grantum has problems--it's not all running about in uniform with no place to go fight. First, he married an American heiress named Cora (Elizabeth Mc Govern) back in the day. The viewer knows she's American because she says so at least twice in every episode. She gave him nothing but girl babies. The law will not let old Grantum give Downton Abbey to any of his three daughters. This, to me, was a very stupid law. But it's great for fiction purposes.
There's the elder daughter who has a dark secret involving having a dead Turk turning up in her boudoir one night (don't ask). She's now engaged to be married to a nasty press baron who wants to use his money and her pedigree to be a blue blood, to live large in the hustings while running his Fleet Street scandal sheet.
His second daughter is besotted with a radical Irish chauffeur who lost his brother in the Irish Revolution that began in 1916. (Oh dear.) Plus, Lord Grantum has his manor entailed to a middle class second cousin. This solicitor cuz has a liberal/reform minded mummy (!) who is keen on having the over-sized manor home tuned into a some permanent soldiers' home and/or a settlement house for the poor.
His third daughter is secretly married to a hedgehog.
OK, I made that last part up. I don't know what his third daughter is doing. I think she's a nurse or running a Dead Turk Removal Service out of the back of a pub. I promise to pay more attention in the next episode.
All these trade-rich and middle-class parvenus, and working classes servants are most loyal to the status quo, save that grim-faced little maid, Mrs. O'Brien (Irish....again!) whose always eves-dropping on other folks and is always up to no good.
The show runs it's melodramatic course with above-average writing and moments of genuine human emotion---it's not great stuff, but good enough for all the twists and turns needed to make fans come back for a new episode. The head writer and producer, Julien Fellowes, did an excellent job with his recent adaptations of Jane Austen works to the small screen, so he knows this upstairs-middle stairs--downstairs territory and its potential to hook viewers very well.
The whole class thing is blunted by World War I, which ended on last night's program. Historically, all British classes take took it in the neck one way or another. The only death in the show comes from a servant. Lat night, the Lord led all the family and servants in a sober observance of the Armistice with this touching phrase
"We've all entered into a new age!"
Aas far as I can see the writers on this show are going with the old Talleyrand line of "the more things change, the more they will stay the same" angle, at least as far as life in the over-sized housing pile in Berkshire known as Downton . I find this stuff--how the past is filtered and reconstituted for entertainment--a keen way to spend an hour a week.
By conveniently blurring the class distinctions of the time with a lot of noblesse oblige and more than a dash of modern psychology, Fellowes and his writers allow their audience the benefits of a romantic period piece and none of the troubling drawbacks. The absence of race as a major issue may provide the American audience an instant comfort zone — Americans love to pretend that we, unlike our mother country, are an egalitarian and socially mobile society — but "Downton Abbey" is, after all, a British version of "The Help," the tale of an oppressive social and economic system that is finally being called into question.
For more on the show, here's a recent article in the Los Angeles Times by Television critic Mary MacNamara: