Sunday, January 19, 2014

I Like Downton Abbey... A Lot

Like tens or even hundreds of millions of other people across the globe I am a loyal fan of Downton Abbey. Some of the reasons for this are no different from the other fans. Other reasons might be less common.

Superficially, the visual experience is extraordinary. The costumes, main house, and grounds are breath taking. And the trips to the village just add to the authenticity. Who ever is responsible for period authenticity does an amazing job. One one hand it feels as educational as a documentary, yet, on the other hand, it never feels arcane or strange. You feel like your television is a time machine into days gone by where you are as comfortable and familiar as you are on the sofa where you are sitting to watch the show.

The actors are extraordinary as well. They bring these characters to life so well that you feel as though you know them, perhaps even as though you have always known them. But, for me, an important measure of good acting is that you think  the actors and actresses are really like this character in real life. Then you see one of them in an interview, where they are very different, and then realize what a truly amazing job they are doing with their character.

The writing deserves kudos as well. In fact, if it weren't for the excellent writing the other components would not come together. At bottom Downton Abbey is a soap opera. Its purpose is to emotionally engage the viewers into the lives and travails of the characters. But, what separates Downton Abbey from afternoon soap operas is that the afternoon poor cousins are usually heavy handed and formulaic brutally extracting unrefined pathos from an unwashed audience. But the emotional complications in Downton Abbey are subtle, sophisticated, and nearly always instances of larger issues. And, on that note of larger issues, I will turn to the of the deeper reasons why I like the show.

The characters of Downton Abbey, despite the grandeur, costumes and quaintness are people just like you and I. One of the greatest accomplishments of the actors and the writers is to make us feel like we know about these people and care about them. The problems they are facing are problems that we face today. They are coping with change. They are often pinched by social roles. They often pinch back. They have to adjust to new technologies. They have to cope with the ugliness of war.  They are people wresting with the eternal problems of the human condition and we can relate to their struggles. But, it isn't all big issues. There is unrequited love. There are serious and painful losses of a loved one. Society is unfair; yet it works better for some while not as well for others. And it isn't perfect for anyone. 

Maggie Smith won a well deserved award from the Screen Actor's Guild last night for her role as the Dowager Countess. She is, at once, the very symbol of the old order and its most cynical and insightful critic.In reacting to the other characters she provides equal amounts of stern rebuke and comforting solace. And, yet, despite the complexity and contradictory aspects of this character she pulls it off as though it is as natural as a walk on the beach. 

This is good stuff. Some day it will end and I will be very sad.

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