When You’re Downton


I love television.  This isn’t to say that I think that everything on T.V. is great, but at its best television has the power to provoke and stimulate as it entertaining us with good stories.  At its worst is puts zany caricatures of people into silly predicaments so we can be amused by the results.

This is largely the difference between a “character driven show” and a “situational comedy”.

The aim of a sitcom is to present us with comely beauties and outgoing personalities, the entertainment value provided is meant to stimulate us for a short period of time while diverting or distracting us from the dismal realities that life often provides.

Sitcoms can run for years, provided the stars age well (or are replaced by younger models) and the writers can continue to envision situations that Americans will find comedic.

By contrast, a character driven show walks the fine line between art and amusement.

By attempting to present us with believable persons, the dramatic program must trade in a believable realism while demonstrating the human ability to change while remaining honest and convincing.

The longer a character driven show remains on air the more difficult it is for the show to remain interesting.  As long as the characters can deepen and develop the show will continue to be compelling. When the characters on the show begin doing things that are “uncharacteristic” or “change too much” we begin feeling betrayed and turn the channel.

Remember when “Laverne and Shirley” moved to California?

Remember when Urkel became Stephon?

Remember when The Fonz stopped womanizing and began a long term relationship with Crystal Bernard?

Remember “The Office” after season 4?

I love character driven programming.  When a program is presenting us with rich and compelling characters it doesn’t seem to matter what situations they get themselves in, as long as it’s their character or personhood that gets them out.

All of which brings me to the Masterpiece series Downton Abbey.

How in the world does a drama about a Turn-of-the-Century British family become a global phenomenon, especially in an era curiously bent on celebrating the modern family experience?

I’d suggest that in our completely uninhibited American society, a collection of repressed Brits bound by civic duty and family responsibility, is incredibly intriguing.  A modern sitcom rarely presents us with people who are presented with challenges much larger than “getting what I want while making sure that everybody still likes me by bedtime.”

Downton turns this sort of thinking on its ear.  Throughout the series a consistent contrast is made between the utilitarian ideals of America and the traditional honor code of the English… and along the way it’s honest.

It pains most characters to tell a lie about a situation, or to behave in a manner that they know is untrue.  Beyond this the people of Downton do things out of honest motivations, and those honest motivations are reflections of their character or nature.

When this kind of writing is presented by brilliant performers, we are are confronted with a realism that is extremely hard to find in a sitcom.  With just a look , a nod, or a wink, the protagonists and antagonists regularly communicate more in a moment than most dramas do with speeches.

In addition to being honest, it’s fair.

Instead of presenting the people who do things traditionally as good and the people who do things contrarily as bad, Downton presents us with people who do things well today and miserably tomorrow.

Each person maintains a strong character while occasionally giving in to temptation.  As they do, they dip into uncharacteristic behavior that grieves them nearly as much as it grieves those who love them… especially the audience.

This isn’t to say that the character of Downton are all rosy.  The character of the sinners is just as ironclad as that of the saints, just facing in the opposite direction.  In fact I’d suggest that the show’s “sinners” are the characters who are the most compelling and identifiable to a viewer who lives by the postmodern creed:

 “If it doesn’t get me what I want, then I won’t do it.  If something doesn’t seem practical, then I don’t do it.”

While the ideals of an ancient empire in contrast with the burgeoning ideals of a new world are clearly presented, the true equity of Downton is revealed by the fact that not every Brit is a slave to their moral code and not every American is a pragmatist.  On either side, people of honor consistently place themselves at a disadvantage that they must overcome… because they are keeping their word.

Downton hasn’t given us cleverly drawn simpletons who languish in folly to provide a meager entertainment.  It has chosen to give us persons over personalities, and inner beauty as opposed to external attractiveness.

Character driven programming always has an expiration date, and great British programming is generally tossed before reaching the point where the characters are forced to embarrass themselves in a situational comedy of errors.  The near impossibility of faking a believable reality means that a British drama rarely lives beyond a second year.

This means that we have to enjoy Downton while we can.

As the third season bows in America we should all take a season to sit back and enjoy the substance that honesty and equity bring to art… because it’s not everyday that you can say that about television.

We all love character driven people.  The substance and enjoyment they bring to life far surpasses the fleeting comedy and thin relational veneer that overblown personalities and vain beauty bring to our daily existence.

Attractiveness and outgoing engagement are parts of our everyday life, but the depth provided by nobility of character is what brings life to living.

How in the world does a drama about a Turn-of-the-Century British family become a global phenomenon?

It does so by the merits of its character,

the same way that real people do.

One Response to “When You’re Downton”

  1. Kristen January 12, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Woah, potent words at the end! Love your insightful news, Jon!

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