Sunday, January 06, 2013

Downton Abbey and our Place in this World

Tonight marks the third season of the Downton Abbey series on PBS, and I am nearly beside my white, balding, middle-aged self with anticipation.

For those of you who have been living in a yurt in the Mojave desert for the past two years, Downton Abbey is a series of very well told fictional stories set at the beginning of the last century in Great Britain, filmed with great care and crafted with the highest excellence.  This is what story telling in film should be more about.

The series has generated critical acclaim, audience enthusiasm, and impressive ratings.  It has also garnered six Emmys and one Golden Globe, ending HBO’s dominance over the movies and miniseries category. Downton is ranked No. 3 in terms of overall audiences in all Masterpiece presentations since 1990, second only to The Buccaneers and Prime Suspect 2. It brought in a staggering average audience of 6.3 million viewers for its second season premiere on Jan. 8 and was the second-watched program at 9 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday—a prime time coup for a period drama that airs on PBS, of all places.

This week, I caught a fascinating interview on NPR with the cast of Downton, and was struck by the thoughtfulness of Elizabeth Montgomery, who plays the role of Lady Grantham.  Here is the short transcript of the interview with NPR's David Green:

GREENE: I'm struck what you said right there. You said it's a world so different from our own world. I read something in the New York Times, a write-up describing things this way: "How perversely comforting to turn our attention to a world where you will die where you were born and where the heroes are the rare overachievers who work their way up to butler from footman." Why, Elizabeth, is this comforting, in some way, to, you know, people today?

MCGOVERN: I think because in today's world, we all live with the burden of feeling that anything is possible if we're only clever enough, smart enough, work hard enough, that we can achieve any fluctuation in rank in society, and that there is a small disappointment if, for whatever reason, you haven't managed to earn a fortune or succeed in some huge way that you thought you would as a young person. And, I mean, there's something, of course, marvelous about that. I mean, personally, I wouldn't change that for anything. I wouldn't go back to the old way. But I think there was a comfort for people, to a certain extent, in knowing this is their role. This is their place.
Imagine that; the "burden of feeling that anything is possible" if we're only clever enough, smart enough, or work hard enough".  As I listened to those words, I was struck that this is the problem that affects so many of us Americans.  After all, we won the Revolutionary War, settled our own Colonies, and then, to top it off we freed the slaves and won the West.  We can rise above our station in life.  Gosh darn it, we can do anything, right?

As life moves on, and I get a bit older, I am realizing that is not the way life works.  Many, if not most all of us, must at some point come to realize our station in life and learn to adapt to our surroundings.  No, you will not become the CEO of some multi-national corporation, nor will you end up winning the PGA Grand Slam - instead you must learn your purpose in middle management, and attempt to keep your golf handicap under 40.  Like those living downstairs at Gratham Manor, we must find purpose and meaning in the daily sacred of our little lives.

And Ms. McGovern's comment about "there was a comfort for people, to a certain extent, in knowing this is their role.  This is their place", struck me as well. 

Perhaps this is the reason I enjoy Downton Abbey so much - it points out the mystery of comfort in knowing your place in the world.  I think I might be still, in some small ways, struggling with accepting my place in the world.  While the plots often point out the hypocrisy of the upper class, they also speaks largely of deep character, dignity, selflessness and courage among all classes in society.  These are messages that will never grow tiring to me.

And so, tonight I will sit with my sweet wife of more than 24 years and enjoy a winter's eve hour of fine British drama, set in post World War II Great Britain.  Whilst watching the elegant costuming and pastoral English countryside, I will reflect on my station in life in this urban 21st century Southern California.  At evening's end, I will remember that tomorrow, as I rise and set out for work, I again have a chance to bring dignity, a bit of joy, and meaning to my workplace world.

And below, for you Mojave yurt dwellers, is a steroids version recap of Seasons 1 & 2 of Downton Abbey:

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