March 3, 2013

Maine Voices: In 'Downton Abbey,' a better world

Millions of fans spend every Sunday night in a place where discretion, accountability and compassion are the norm.

SOUTH FREEPORT - OK, I'll admit it, I'm hooked.

Dan Stevens Michelle Dockery,
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Maggie Smith as Lady Violet Crawley, the dowager countess of Grantham, left, from "Downton Abbey." A self-confessed addict wonders if Americans' love for the series is due partly to the characters' "delicacy of speech."

Nick Briggs/PBS, Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 via The Associated Press

It didn't happen until at least three people had given me that look, the one that crosses pity and disdain and says silently, "Oh you poor thing, what is the matter with you anyway?"

So one night, stuck in an out-of-town hotel room, I tried it: three full hours of "Downton Abbey."

Halfway through the evening, I was entranced: curious about backstory, caring for characters, rooting for outcomes. I joined the millions who sit straight-backed (metaphorically, at least) on the edge of our chairs each Sunday night to see the next episode.

This is not like me. I have always hated soap operas, avoided sitcoms and cringed at most reality shows. I excuse watching "Criminal Minds" with the rationale of a musician falling asleep to a familiar piece of music. If I can figure out the psychology of the serial killer before the team does, I feel vindicated.

Now that I have joined the masses who step into post-Edwardian England each week, I have to wonder what captures us. Good drama, certainly. A complex, multi-layered story, no doubt. But why are so many of us drawn to a world where rules and boundaries and etiquette matter? These are things our culture has discarded. America is about meritocracy, informality and tell-all intimacy.

What is the psychology that propels this series to the top of America's charts? I cannot help but hypothesize. Maybe, just maybe, we find the delicacy of speech refreshing, the requirement of respect in human discourse a relief from America's love affair with confrontation and directness.

"'Lie' is such an unmusical word," the dowager countess says to Dr. Carlson, and a moment is saved. A small silence brings them back to what they share: the wish to heal a family.

Maybe it is also the acceptance of sin, and its consequences. In the world of "Downton," shame still exists, and redemption is not assumed. "It was lust, nothing more," Lady Mary labels her behavior, "and I expect you will think less of me for it, as I deserve." There is no shirking of the mantle of what is right, no entitlement to forgiveness.

Perhaps we, who favor talk-show redemption and resort-setting rehab, find something pure in this.

The characters on "Downton" display the full range of human failings. And they do behave badly, at times very badly. But the gentility with which they conduct themselves, even in their worst moments, lends something noble to their human struggles.

We root for them because they believe in a refined and ethical way to act, even when they cannot accomplish it. Their world is refreshingly complex, looking back from this culture, where only the flagrantly illegal is reprehensible, and anything else is not to be judged.

There is one more thing that draws me to this drama, and I wonder if it has not captured other Americans as well.

Although the boundaries between upstairs and downstairs are clear, and the rules of authority and privilege are set, human compassion flows freely. It moves from aristocracy to the servant class and back again. The Granthams suffer when their valet is unjustly imprisoned, and rejoice when he is released. The kitchen staff grieves for Lady Sybil and finds someone to nurse her infant.

The bond of caring has no boundaries, as the lady of the house tells the head housekeeper, "All I want to say is this: If you are sick, I do not want you to worry about where you will go, and who will take care of you. You will stay right here, and we will."

On "Downton Abbey," people care for one another not only out of duty, but also out of affection. And those on the receiving end accept with grace and gratitude. Self-reliance and autonomy are not the only values that matter.

I know it's just a story. But maybe, just maybe, post-Edwardian England is speaking softly to all of us.

Mary E. Plouffe is a resident of South Freeport.

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