Saturday, January 14, 2012

"Downton Abbey" Obsessions

The PBS series is becoming the “West Wing” and “Sopranos” of the century’s second decade, mirroring Americans’ longing for escape from the Obama and Tea Party era as surely as its predecessors reflected a desire for a more human society, high and low, during George W. Bush’s time.

As second season ratings soar, what is “Downton Abbey” telling us about ourselves?

In midlife, a dozen friends and I hired a small bus with a guide to tour England’s stately homes. After a week, the obscene grandeur of those palaces with huge tapestries of ancestors who had earned them by slaughtering enemies of royalty and passed them down to generations living in unearned luxury while countless others toiled away their lives below stairs made me homesick for America, where Adams, Franklin and Jefferson had resisted replicating such a society here, even as it took them a century and a war to stop enslaving a whole race.

Now “Downton Abbey” arrives to enchant an ambivalent Anglophile, who in the 1930s and 40s, grew up on Hollywood’s version of England in what John Updike called “those gargantuan, crass contraptions whereby Jewish brains project Gentile stars upon a Gentile nation and out of the immigrant joy gave a formless land dreams and even a kind of conscience.”

The movie moguls brought over Greer Garson, Ronald Colman, Cary Grant, Madeleine Carroll, Leslie Howard, David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, among a colony of British actors, to people our imaginations with role models of how civilized people behave.

Decades later, American are more sophisticated but, in hard economic and political times, apparently hunger again for a world of order where decent people (mostly) struggle with their humanity. At the time “Downton Abbey” starts, E. M. Forster had just published “Howard’s End,” a novel in which a 20th century middle class was changing his country with motor cars and commerce.

“Only connect” was Forster’s theme: “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

The world of “Downton Abbey” is certainly breaking apart in the days before World War I in a swirl of uncertainty above and below stairs about inheritance of the estate, intermingled with issues of love, marriage and ambition that affect everyone.

That Julian Fellowes has drawn us into their world so deeply is a tribute to his talent as “The Sopranos” was to David Chase and “The West Wing” to Aaron Sorkin—-the humane but outdated Lord Grantham in a losing struggle to hold his world together; his beautiful, headstrong and confused daughters; the almost masochistically noble valet Bates and the heartstrong housemaid Anna who loves him unconditionally; even the selfish schemers, O’Brian and Thomas, have dimension and complexity.

“Downton Abbey” is now assured of a third season next year, and one of the characters, Maggie Smith as the dowager countess, gives us some clues about where all these people may be heading.

In Fellowes’ script for Robert Altman’s "Gosford Park” (2001), Dame Maggie appeared, playing a similar role, but the mood of that manor house movie set in the 1930s, two decades later, is much darker than “Downton” with most of the characters upstairs and down self-seeking and dishonorable and, when the vile host is murdered, hardly anyone cares.

Meanwhile, we can all live at “Downton Abbey” now, and even newcomers can catch up with past episodes online and luxuriate.

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