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'Downton Abbey' hooks us on many levels

Feb. 26, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

A few years ago, when the PBS television series "Downton Abbey" began its first season, my husband and I felt that the Edwardian family drama would not be to our liking. Many friends raved about it, but we were no-shows. Then last year, my husband, Maury, bought another new techie gadget that made it easy to download past years of Downton Abbey.

Now we, too, are among the millions who are addicted to this show. It made me question what attracts millions to a TV series set across "the pond" generations ago? The answer seems simple. With great wit, the show shows the complexity and interconnectedness of relationships, family, love and status. This timeless window into human relationships is what hooks us.

This is a story about families with varying desires, expectations, hopes and problems. The Crawley/Granthams, the main family around whom the drama revolves, are representative of Britain's supreme upper class. They fascinate us because while they are surrounded by material wealth and status beyond belief, their lives turn out to be imperfect.

We see their difficulties at home and in the business world. We are surprised to observe similarities to our families because we imagine that their material possessions should insulate them from familiar problems. Their family members make poor choices and often avoid facing reality. We often try to keep the negatives in our own lives and our families hidden, but Downtown Abbey's flaws and successes are there for all of us to view.

We Americans are basically romantics and adore love stories with complications, setbacks and heartbreak that later result in new love or happiness. Downton Abbey is awash with these. More often than not, these romantic situations remind us of our own lives as they are, were or we wish them to be.

The clothing, lifestyles and attitudes of the day fascinate us. Had we lived in the time period of this drama, we can't imagine being enveloped in the luxury and trappings of the Crawley/Granthams. There are extremely wealthy people in our country, England and around the world today, but few of us have had such intimate views of these families.

Viewers often say they have less difficulty relating to the downstairs staff, who serve and wait on their rich employers. But even there, the pecking order and the rigid social rules for those folks captivate us. We see the kitchen help worrying that new inventions could lead to their unemployment. The technology may have changed, but this issue is with us today.

A repeated theme, that people who make mistakes are still good people, appeals to all of us. We are reminded that almost everyone, even the sharp-tongued matriarch dowager countess, played so fantastically by Maggie Smith, can learn from others. The fact that the occasional "bad apple" eventually gets his/her just desserts makes us smile.

As the Downton Abbey programs have continued in the past few years, they illustrate how the world has changed. From agriculture, transportation, fashion, societal rules, household appliances, to women's rights, businesses and entertainment, we see a forecast of our present day society. Downton Abbey reminds us that our world is not stagnant and what we accept as modern this year soon will be outmoded.

The show's creator, Julian Fellowes, has promised more years of this show. That's a good thing as his complex scenario of love, family, status and change have led many of us to be hooked on "Downton Abbey."

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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