Downton Abbey Redux

5 Sep

Rewatching the Downton Abbey series as a marathon this weekend (meaning I have had it on while awake and have used it as the background while I washed clothes, ironed, washed the floor, cleaned up my online accounts, read the paper, etc.), I have developed a whole new appreciation for this work of 21st century art.
I think one could watch the series five or six times and see something new every time. Like art throughout the ages, it has many levels and facets.
For example, one could watch the series just to concentrate on the history of the early 20th century. Or on the love stories/marriages of the characters.
One could watch it as a series of character studies of deeply drawn, complex characters. One could watch it as a study of good vs. evil, and how the fault line between the two runs through every one of us.
One could watch Downton Abbey once just to see the clothes and fashions, the ways of doing hair and wearing jewels.
One could watch it once just to concentrate on the furniture and once just to see the architecture.
I think one could watch Downton Abbey one complete time just to concentrate on the wit and wisdom of the quotable Dowager Countess.
This time through I am impressed with the richness of the way the plots and characters are drawn. They are like a warm, lovely, and complex tapestry, composed of many threads below the surface that hold the finished product together.
Some who are addicted to shows that supposedly expose the evil below the surface of every happy family complain that Downton Abbey is simplistic because most of the plots resolve happily at the end of each season; all of them resolve happily at the end of the series. To that, I would say “to each his own.” If someone needs to have misery or unresolved tension at the end of each work of art in order to regard it as art, I would claim that person has a narrow definition of art. Darkness has not always been a prerequisite for art. In our era it sometimes seems to be so, but that does not make darkness and uncertainty the only factors that define whether or not something is a work of art.
I noted this time that of about thirty marriages portrayed in the series, approximately 27 of them are happy marriages, with the couple showing mutual respect and having deep dialogue in their private moments together. That is a template to which I can relate! Those who want to claim that every marriage is secretly miserable behind the scenes simply have to turn revisionist about history and either claim that Downton Abbey misportrayed the marriages of its era or that marriage has gone severely downhill since then.
I also noted this time through how the dialogue at the Downton Abbey dinner table has much substance and richness, so much more than the dialogue at many communal meals I have attended within the last ten years. In this case, I do see a shift in social mores. We as a society have become both crude and obsessed with popularity to the point that we will prattle on in the crudest terms possible if we believe it will earn us a big enough audience of our peers. It is like we play a real life version of Facebook and its system of “likes.” We talk in shocking terms because we get more attention that way than by merely discussing deep ideas or remarking on the beauty around us.
Thankfully I know enough people who will engage in real and deep conversation that my heart and brain are not starving but I am not at all impressed with our societal shift to the banal and shocking.
In conclusion, Downton Abbey is one of my favorite pieces of 21st century art because it is a canvas on which we can reflect on modern life, with a palette to help us see both what may be better than those years a century ago and what may be worse.
Downton Abbey makes us think and feel and for that I am truly grateful to Julian Fellowes and his team.

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