Downton’s Delightful Dilemmas

Commentary: The BBC television show provokes fascinating, instructive dialogue.

Downton Abbey, a very popular series halfway through its third season on PBS, features a British family in possession of a huge and somewhat crumbling estate and the large staff employed to serve them.

The acting is excellent, the costumes stunning and the scenery most pleasing to the eye. The story lines are many, intricate and engaging. That said, a case could be made for watching the show solely for the few minutes in which Dame Maggie Smith appears in each episode.

Although some critics complain that Downton is just a sophisticated soap opera, not too many specify what they find “soap opera-ish” about it. It can’t just be that it focuses on complicated human relationships that suffer a lot of ups and downs. After all, most of the best literature ever written features such.

Some critics claim that it is excessively dramatic and that it is dominated (at least in the third season) by “explosive overtaxing emotion.” Others complain about implausible elements that are introduced to move the story lines along: elements like an heir to the estate engaged to a daughter of the present Lord Grantham, who reputedly drowned on the Titanic, but who survived, and then suffered amnesia and then became unrecognizable because of scars produced by the ordeal and returned to encounter a sister of the daughter engaged to him, a sister who truly loved him in the first place but didn’t know upon his return whether he was the real thing or an imposter who stole the heir’s story in order to steal the estate.

Yep, the implausible plot-advancing devices can be annoying although, admittedly, real life regularly features developments that could not be believed were they not real. My chief complaint is that the pace is often much too fast. I would like to savor some events more and watch some developments unfold more gradually. On the other hand, there is something wonderful about Downton Abbey’s efficiency, about it not needing to linger on a murder trial or a wedding.

I watch only two TV shows (fearing I will lose credibility, I won’t tell you what the other one is). Downton is only on for eight Sundays, so to get on my list that has only two slots is a huge achievement.

It is on my list because of the acting, costumes and scenery, but also because the story lines are engrossing and uplifting.

As good stories should, they exhibit important truths about human beings and life. They feature characters trying to live up to their highest duties and by their highest principles even at great inconvenience to themselves.

These individuals are truly good but still susceptible to bad judgment and sometimes even to immoral behavior. They exhibit genuine kindness and compassion. The characters undergo all sorts of interesting development, among them, maturing with the help of the older, wiser characters.

Unlike in the stories featured in most modern entertainment, nearly all the characters are in middle age and beyond, and they possess wisdom and share it with the younger set who profit by it. Watching dear Daisy, the kitchen assistant under the direction of the redoubtable Mrs. Patmore, struggle with all her interesting moral quandaries, is as fascinating as watching the aristocrats Mary, Edith and Sybil find their way. Julian Fellowes, the author, has succeeded marvelously in drawing out the humanity of all.

There are evil characters, too; those who seem to hate good people simply because they are good.

We get some indication that there are events in the past that can help explain their behavior — and that is always true for evil people — but we don’t get the sense that knowing these events would excuse evil action. Sin is definitely portrayed as sin and has harmful consequences. One of the most riveting scenes and events involved an implausible but arguably necessary death of a seducer, post coitus. He was left lying dead in the bed of Mary, who had repeatedly resisted his advances until they became irresistible. This event complicates her life and the life of others in a myriad of ways. What precedes and what follows the implausible event itself are so engrossing that the implausibility matters very little.

I used that scene as a teaching tool for seminarians and priests. We were discussing the moral culpability of agents. Mary is clearly a virgin and likely has not even kissed anyone. She puts on a show of being quite worldly but is not. A seductive gorgeous sheik appears on the scene and they flirt conspicuously. He corners her in a dark room and starts to kiss her; she notes that if she were to tell her father, he would be booted out in the cold. She tells him he must leave immediately in the morning. That night he appears in her room and attempts to seduce her. She rejects him several times but when he throws her on the bed and begins kissing her, she yields.

Teenage girls could learn a great deal from that scene since Mary’s loss of virginity is the story of many. Women sometimes naively try to protect men who have misused them and let them take advantage of them and then become overwhelmed by their masculine charm and proximity and likely curiosity. They did not seek to lose their virginity, they protested, and then they yield. What a marvelous scene!

Mary seems culpable: She knowingly and willingly yielded. But then, again, is she? She is a bit like the person who has her first taste of wine and likes it too much and continues to drink and before she knows it, she is drunk. She did not set out to get drunk, but one thing leads to another.

I can’t resist a show that is capable of provoking fascinating and instructive conversations.

Many of the other complexities of life are also wonderfully portrayed. Downton Abbey shows how very difficult it has been in many periods of history to find a good spouse. It shows how idleness is boring and makes one shallow and how taking up challenges, especially challenges that benefit others, enables people to “find themselves” and become rich and deep human beings. It shows the ups and downs of marriage while presenting marriage in a very positive light. It shows how difficult it is for those who have done well in their times to adjust to the changes that emerge in culture over time.

Religion, up to this point, hasn’t featured much in Downton Abbey. There was a remarkable scene In Season 2 where Mary, pretty much a cynical non-believer, prayed for the safety of a young man as he went off to war. The show subtly suggests that her prayers kept him safe. The idiosyncratic combination of Catholicism and communism professed by a passionate Irishman promises to develop into a fascinating set of conflicts.

I’m hooked. Downton Abbey is not perfect but it’s good, really good.

Janet E. Smith, Ph.D., holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan.