A Morality Play: Season One of Downton Abbey

8 Feb

Obviously, my title is its own spoiler alert for any who have not seen Season One yet!

I also must make a disclaimer here and say that I hardly watch any modern television programs.

“Jeopardy” and some Piers Morgan interviews because my husband likes them.  The news.  That is about it.

I love movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  I love retro TV from the 1970’s and early 1980’s.  

I love classic novels.

I evaluate television by those standards, not by other current shows.  So if something being made now has my stamp of approval, it is an amazing and unusual work of art.

Downton Abbey is that show.  We are watching Season Three, but were given the first two seasons on DVD as a gift for supporting public television.  So I am catching up on the earlier episodes right now.

I love the beautiful home, and the precious small town atmosphere around Downton Abbey.

I love the clothes.

I love the depth of the characters that are portrayed, both upstairs and downstairs.

I started out with Lady Mary as my favorite character, but it has slowly shifted to be Mr. Carson, the loyal family butler.  My favorite scene is at the end of Season One as he hesitantly offers his shoulder to the crying Lady Mary.  Wonderful characterization!

I also love the morality of the characters.  Even the villains know when they are doing wrong and consciously choose to do so.  Things were not portrayed with so many mixed signals and analyses back in the World War I era and the show is faithful to that.  People back then didn’t call good evil and evil good.

When someone does wrong on the show, even the moral characters, they have consequences to their actions, in the tradition of the best old movies and literature (think Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”).

Sure we are all flawed sinners.  But the show rewards the good things that are done and punishes the evil ones.  Eventually.  Just the way God has set up natural consequences to work in this world.

I also applaud the fact that there is no real violence portrayed onscreen, just a few scuffles between men using their fists.  The way Shakespeare used to write his plays.  The violence takes place offscreen.  Even World War I, in the case of Downton Abbey.

So does the sex.  Yes, there are two sexual storylines, one heterosexual and one gay.  But those stories are also take place offscreen and are told by the characters involved.  When things begin to get steamy, the camera stops rolling at the kissing part.  There is no nudity nor heavy breathing.

The word is “understated.”  It involves avoiding coarseness. I applaud the show for this.

One note about Thomas, the gay character, who by our modern definition is guilty of sexual assault (and blackmail) in every one of his attempted relationships:  if I were gay, I would regard his character, the biggest villain at Downton Abbey, as a big step backwards for gay rights.  I am not sure why a kissing scene, involving him as footman to a nobleman, happens in the first episode.  It has kept many traditional Christians from carrying on watching the series.  And it is not followed up in any of the other episodes.  It is like a bone being thrown to the gay lobby, but makes no sense, in context.  And, as I said, his character is despicable after that.  

Mrs. Patmore, the cook, refers to him as a “tormented soul,” while trying to explain him to a naive young girl who has a crush on him.  That is the kindest thing ever said about Thomas. Back then, that would be the phrase used for a gay person, I suppose.  

So “Downton Abbey” is a show that celebrates morality and does not involve coarseness and a cheapening of our standards and ourselves.

What is not to like?





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