‘Things will be great when you’re Down-ton’
If I’m diligent and steadfast in my work today, I will reward myself with a guilt-free hour of public television this evening.
Two points of distinction should be made here for clarity.
1) This carrot and stick affair of reward for hard work completed shouldn’t be confused with anything like “discipline” or a “healthy work ethic.” Truth be told, I’ll drop my ass right down in front of the television tonight whether I sit on my hands all day or finally complete the first chapter of my much anticipated response to “Atlas Shrugged,” the working title of which is “I’m Broke, Ayn Rand. Loan Me 50 Bucks?”
2) “Guilt-free” is used here not as an actual emotional designation, but something of a road sign pointing to a hazy region on the TV Induced Spectrum of Self Loathing located somewhere between TED talks with Noam Chomsky and four-hour marathons of “Stargate Atlantis.” One could be forgiven for thinking that somehow anything seen on PBS edges nearer the former, but then one might not be watching “Downton Abbey.”
Don’t be fooled by the rugged tough-guy exterior I’ve spent much of my life erecting and maintaining. What self-respecting bearded hipster (as I have been described by at least one boozy colleague at LEO who-will-remain-nameless-OK-it-was-Sara-Havens) would be so two-dimensional as to neglect augmenting their outward appearance with intentionally zany filigrees of character? In addition to being a devoted Kinghorse fan capable of shot-gunning a beer in five seconds flat, bench-pressing 250, give or take, and servicing several types of small, two-stroke engines, I also love quiche, am a pretty deft hand on the sewing machine, made the curtains in our kitchen from some super cute fabric I bought at Ikea (yes, with little birds on it), and am hopelessly and gleefully enamored with the previously mentioned BBC period/costume drama (read: old-timey British soap opera).
As my enthusiasm for “Downton Abbey” has increased to the point of boiling over, I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that I’m a complete sucker for pop culture representations of the protocols, lifestyles and appointments of British culture from, roughly speaking, the Elizabethan era through early 20th century. They’re just … well they’re just so damn European. Like encountering one’s contorted figure in a funhouse mirror, or meeting a long-lost relative for the first time, I think it’s the opaque but essential familiarity of my British cousins that endlessly fascinates me.
Watching the second season of “Downton” as the hierarchies of old world European aristocracy are forcibly transitioned, around the upheavals of World War I, into something much more recognizably modern, the show offers an opportunity to consider from a fictional and historical remove the membrane between what we’ve lately been considering numerically in terms of 1 percent and 99 percent.
While widespread deferral to anything resembling a systematic code of social etiquette is nearly as outmoded as the whale-bone corset, I find in “Downton Abbey” an interesting point of reflection on those inherited social codes that linger with us: namely our still very awkward relationship with servitude and social mobility.
Anyone who’s ever felt a sharp twinge of regret for reflexively using the words “sir” or “ma’am” (whose etymologies are, to state the obvious, sire and madam) to address some dozy shitbird or, inversely, any lady or gentleman who’s ever expected to be addressed as such by some impetuous prick but was not, is intimately familiar with the feeling of a formerly operable hierarchy interrupted. This may initially seem like a linguistic trifle, but it points to one small aspect of the social structures we’ve inherited directly from European feudalism that, while present under the veils of the free market, were made to drastically contort themselves to fit through the bottleneck of the French Revolution and issue forth, slightly dampened, but very much intact into Modernity.
It’s on this point that “Downton Abbey” achieves some of its novel successes. Unlike many of the other period dramas I’ve devoured whole, this show’s particular focus on the liminal years straddling the turn of the century are thoughtfully wrought and establish a humanizing segue between the social structures of the very past, the recently past, and the immediately present.