Saturday, February 9, 2013


The alert reader may have divined that I’m more than a little prideful to be off to the side of the mainstream. To reveal that I had a habit of watching Seinfeld re-runs and the occasional football game takes on the tone of a confession. And so here comes another one:

I’m hooked on Downton Abby.*

It took three or four shows to jump in and feel connected, but by Sunday’s show after the heart-wrenching Super Bowl, I was a believer. So much so that I went to our local Le Video store and got Season One to begin the long trek to catch up. Five shows into that and the addiction has taken root in the bloodstream. If there was only one copy of the next show at the video store, I’m sure I would commit physical violence against the person who tried to get it before me.

Like Seinfeld or a Dickens novel, the first step is to recognize the characters and get a feel for who they are and what they’re about and how they react. You have to love or hate them enough to wonder what their next move is, make little predictions and either have the satisfaction of proving correct or the surprise of watching them grow or fall from grace. (It’s not unlike the scientist making an hypothesis or a music listener imagining the next phrase of the music.) Howard Gardner might call such shows schools for developing  the interpersonal intelligence.

Then you get drawn into the threads of the plot and as I wrote back in the The Three Pillars of Literacy, we story-brained humans thrive on this kind of food. We live vicariously in an ongoing story similar to our own, but three notches higher on the drama end and easier to stomach because we’re a few steps removed. TV has always had this with the daytime soap operas which we loved to make fun of, but from The Sopranos to The Wire to Madmen to Downton Abby, it’s all the new, upgraded Days of Our Lives and General Hospital.

And then there’s the beautiful hatreds and rivalries between the characters and no matter if you’re upstairs, downstairs or out in the garden. Our fantasies of “transparent" communication and New Age togetherness would make for some poor drama. Who wants to show five seasons of people hugging each other, working out their issues with good honest talk straight from the heart in every encounter, relinquishing their positions of power to be more inclusive and fair? One of my first shocks going to Mt. Baldy Zen Center was discovering how the book image of a peaceful community was pretty far from the actual gathering of bizarre characters. Even the Roshi at a celebration talked about how when they began, this officer wouldn’t talk to that one, that one abused the other and how if people in a place devoted to nurturing peace in the heart couldn’t get along, what hope was there for the world?

But the biggest lesson this naïve seeker has learned is that such hope begins with the recognition that alongside the moments of deep communion, hard-earned love, humor, shared joy and quiet connections, human relations are all about power, betrayal, disappointment, rivalry, barbed verbal assaults and occasionally outbursts (more honest!) of physical ones. In every place, in every time, amongst any group of people thrown together in work, travel, neighborhood, what-have-you. It’s all Peyton Place and Downton Abby. No exemptions.

And then what’s fascinating are all the styles of personal warfare. There’s the gender-based approaches—Bates collars Thomas against the wall and tells him he’ll smash his face in if he doesn’t stop this crap, while the Dowager and Mrs. Crawley throw their little verbal darts laden with secret poisons. Mary and Edith forgot to read the book Siblings Without Rivalry and go after the same man as a little game of one-upwomanship. Mrs. Patmore uses Daisy as her whipping girl, while Sibyl is a living California bumper sticker performing random acts of kindness.

And then the secrets that we all carry about, that ride on our shoulder as we put on the front of being normal human beings. Mary’s bizarre encounter with the Turk, Bates' secret story that throws up a wall between him and Anna (back in Season One here) and most delightful of all, Carson, the Guru of the stiff upper lip, and his secret shame that he once sang and danced on the vaudeville stage. Horrors!

If you don’t know these people, these words don’t mean as much. But perhaps they’re enticing you to join the club and that’s another pleasure of this practice— now it is a shared story that peppers the lunchtime conversations at school of those “in the know” and creates a common point of reference. I imagine new words may creep into the vernacular— “Stop O’Briening that person!” “That was so Thomas!”

Off to the video store for the next show. And don’t even think about getting there before me!

* For those in the dark, this is a BBC series about some upper-class Brits and their downstairs servants set at a country estate in the early 1990’s. 

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