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Downton Abbey – a guilty pleasure of the highest order

The British TV series (by way of PBS) “Downton Abbey” reached a fever pitch for fans last night as it wrapped up its second season with a Christmastime finale.

The latest travails of the aristocratic Crawley family in the early decades of the 20th century have captivated more and more of us here in the States. The show has consistently been rated in the top two for its time slot all season, coming in second only to the Grammys last week, for instance. In the Puget Sound region, the audience for its second season grew a full 50 per cent over its first year, and there’s no reason to think it won’t continue to increase when Season 3 begins this September.

I’m a second season convert to the show. After it won six Emmys for its first season, I decided I better check out the phenomenon. So I invited my Mom over to the house to join my wife and I for an all-day marathon of the entire first season, shortly before the start of Season 2. I haven’t missed an episode since.

I love how “Downton Abbey” looks at world history through the prism of social history. Season 1 focuses on the relatively static divisions within British society between the aristocrats and the servant class in the early 20th century. Season 2 zeroes in on how World War One turned a lot of those conventions and expectations upside-down. Season 3 reportedly will deal with the Roaring 20’s.

For me, the most refreshing thing about Downton Abbey is how articulate all of its characters are. Nearly everyone is well-spoken, no matter how ill-bred some might appear to be on the surface. And the characters are each allowed their own brand of dignity. Most everyone is allowed to plead his or her case fully enough to allow us to understand their various positions, even when these characters are in conflict with each other.

I especially appreciate the character of Mary, the eldest Crawley daughter. Although somewhat reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet (from “Pride and Prejudice”), Mary is quite a remarkable creation in the way her analytic nature overrides her emotional instincts. Rarely is a female character allowed such a tendency (and personality!) and it makes her, for me, the most intriguing of a very intriguing cast of characters.

If fans are honest, though, I think we’d have to admit the appeal of the show is aided considerably by soap-opera dynamics. Secret love affairs and even more illicit couplings, continual rounds of jealousy and heartbreak, catastrophic injuries and unexpected deaths, constant gossip and scandal, and even the old reliable “amnesia” gimmick – all of this is used to keep our interest high. I think the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, is a brilliant enough writer that he doesn’t need quite so many literary crutches. But given the fact that he’s created the entire world of Downton Abbey out of whole cloth, I don’t begrudge him a crutch or two too terribly much.

Finally, you know Downton Abbey’s cultural moment has arrived when it’s being parodied on Saturday Night Live, which it was recently. SNL imagines how the show might be advertised on the male-oriented Spike TV network. It’s mostly mocking Spike TV but it also nails many of the crutches Downton Abbey relies on a tad too much.


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