The Gospel of Grantham

The Gospel of Grantham January 8, 2013
Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE/PBS

If you want to know what a nerd I am, I’m going to tell you. About 80% of the status updates in my newsfeed on Sunday were from friends engaged in a “Downt-down.” (I crack myself up). That is, a countdown to the season 3 premier of ‘Downton Abbey.’

The other 20% were something to the effect of, where is Downton Abbey, and why do I want to go there? I’m never quite sure what to tell people about it, except that once you go, you’ll know.

Come to think of it, why DO so many of us love this show? It comes on PBS, for heaven’s sake. When’s the last time you planned your day around what time something came on PBS, and it did not involve Muppets??? It is what many would call historical drama. When you say out loud what it’s about–the family and servants who occupy a large English estate in the 1920′s–it sounds like a total snooze.

And before you say it is a total chick show, let me stop you there. It has hunting; it has booze; it has torrid romance scenes, often involving housemaids. In uniform. What’s not to love, fellas? Lord Grantham is the original man’s man. My husband, like many husbands I know, reluctantly watched the pilot with me, and has not missed an episode since.

So back the original question–you might say what’s NOT to love about Downton, but i’m more interested in why we find it so appealing. I’ve got some theories. I’m going to share a few, then expound on the last one cause i think it is most important.

1-anything with Maggie Smith in it is a win, and worth at least an hour of your time.

2-the costumes. They are breathtaking. Makes you almost wish that folks would still ‘dress for dinner’ from time to time. Or at least not arrive in jammies, with hair still wet from the shower, like i am prone to do.  Carson would not find it fitting.

3. In our uber-complicated world, there is something wholesome and reassuring about watching a program on PBS. Even if it does not involved Elmo, neither does it involve Honey Boo-Boo, or a Kardashian, or any sort of person who wants to scare us into voting for them–right after they’ve cleared up their sex scandal.

4- The characters are stunningly real. We feel their sorrow as our own, their joy as a personal triumph, and we want to see them evolve into their best possible selves. Well, except for Thomas. That ^^o*^-%#$@ is going down.

5- And here is the real reason, I think, that Sunday evening finds 8 million of us glued to a time and place that we will never know in real life: These characters (most of whom we love) are living through a time of dramatically shifting values and culture–and we want to see them come out well on the other side of it. Because if they can make it through the 1920′s with grace and, well, their lives, then perhaps we can make it through a hundred years later and still emerge a civilized people.

As Season 3 begins, we see the reality unfold that we know has been coming all along–the Granthams might lose the farm. Literally. Now, before you holler ‘spoiler’ at me, hold up. I mean, we had to see this coming, right? After all, the show is about the last vestiges of the caste system. It was only a matter of time before war, economy, and social evolution conspired to lead to the inevitable conclusion: that, perhaps, this level of oppulence and entitlement is not sustainable, even for the wealthiest (and most loveable) of people. And that there might, after all, be life out there for those who live ‘downstairs;’ life that does not involve dinner gongs and dressing bells and elaborately-laid tables to which they are never invited.

I’m trying hard not to watch ahead (cause you can see all sorts of things on the British internets that haven’t aired here yet) or read any commentary or speculation about what’s to come this season. I want to wait and see what happens, in good time, with the rest of you. And with the Granthams themselves. That’s half the fun, after all. We may not know what is coming for them; but we certainly know what is coming for the time in which they live. We know that their world is changing by means of industry, art, public policy, and even global warfare, in ways they can’t possibly imagine.

Maybe this is why we love them so… they make us feel visionary, prophetic, and in-the-know for a change. We can see what’s coming for their lives far better than we might speculate what’s coming for us. Makes for a nice change, doesn’t it?

I love how some members of the Downton household are ready to talk about embracing change and ‘living more simply–’ which is funny, cause even if they do lose the estate, they will still be filthy stinkin rich; like 10 servants instead of 50 rich–while others are firmly planted to the grounds in a ‘this is my home and this is who we are’ sort of way.

I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to take a more critical look at my own time and place, and my reactions to the new realities unfolding around me. Cause who knows, my great grandchildren might be watching some really epic teledrama in 100 years–probably on plasma screens that are surgically imbedded into the palms of their hands–and wondering how we lived through this of great transformation. Were we fearful, or hopeful? Did we strive to live simply and justly, or did we hang like death onto the way things ‘should’ be?

Did we go down on the Titanic, or did we live to be a part of history?

I know that true fans are concerned about only one thing: if the Granthams lose Downton, what will we watch?? However, I think that a ‘letting go’ of certain elements of their lifestyle will open up all sorts of potential plot lines for our favorite lords and ladies, maids and footmen.

In fact – how about a family trip to America, Granthams? We can show you a whole new world of unsustainability. Perhaps we could take you to a really big, or really old church; or tell you about Wall Street; then take a tour of industrial farming sites; and then we’ll do a quick fly-by of the House of Representatives, cause those folks are always affecting real and relevant change in a timely fashion. After that, I think we’ll all be ready to veg in front of some public television for awhile.

Times are changing – then, and now. And while it’s easier to escape into their unfolding drama than to be present for our own, perhaps the right critical eye can find, within the folds of fiction, a timely, faithful, and eloquent response for a period of epic transition. If we are people of faith; if we are people of means; if we are people of simple good conscience, who would like to see things change for the better, then never doubt it–the world is watching us.

Now…if only we had a fabulous wardrobe, in which to play the part.

This post originally appeared at Erin Wathen’s blog The New West and is reprinted with permission.

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136 responses to “The Gospel of Grantham”

  1. Actually, I enjoyed the updated version of “Upstairs, Downstairs” set in the 1930s better.

  2. Bravo, Rev. Wathen. This was brilliant. I found myself nodding throughout. You’ve smartly portrayed how the Granthams’ story, is really, ALL of our story — even those of us who eat peanut butter straight out of the jar, who never know which fork to use, and who are still wearing jammies on at 12:41 p.m. <—- That would be me.

    It's OUR story, because of all that you convey here.

    And this: "Because if they can make it through the 1920′s with grace and, well, their lives, then perhaps we can make it through a hundred years later and still emerge a civilized people."

    Well done, m'lady. Well done.

  3. It is enthralling to get lost in time with the Granthams. The characters are very real and so compelling to watch the ups and downs of their lives. And… I’ve loved watching the fashions change over the years!

  4. Thank you for the commentary. As I am newly engaged by this marvelous series, still catching up with season 1, your thoughts help me watch it on even more levels.