The Worth & Mirth of Downton Abbey & Television In General

If time is the scarcest, most precious commodity known, then we, as the conscious-cursed allocators of said commodity, imbue whatever we choose to spend time on with a certain worth.  Logic follows: television has worth insofar as we spend time with it.  The average American watches more than four hours of television per day.  In conjunction with smart phones and computers, this same American will expend approximately eight hours per day, or 50% of his waking daily life, staring at screens of differing sizes.  Not so long ago, these statistics would been seen as apocryphal.  Even, still, when one reads (or, in the more likely scenario, sees on TV) that the human brain exhibits more activity during sleep than while watching television, it’s natural for the doomsday anxiety to rear, to rise like the end times seas that will eternally drown out the lives we sought so fervently to escape, or to feel already the post-thermometer temperatures that will sooner than later scorch the tongues from our mouths.  I would agonize, I would, but I watch six hours of television a day, and I just don’t have the time to worry about such things.  I must agonize over Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey is, through and through, a melodrama, but, like the medium within which it operates, the show’s seeming inanity betokens actual depth.  At a glance, much of what is presented seems hackneyed, the exceptionality stemming only from how the creators managed to corral so many painstakingly pale people.  It is a costume drama that through exploration of the past’s mores and practices seeks to make comment on the present’s.  For the most part, Downton Abbey, accomplishes these tenets of the genre adequately, but what it does expertly is providing the illusion that these things are being done expertly, so much so that the illusion becomes reality, and suddenly Mr. Bates’ cane is a metaphor for your entire life.

Like the cane upon which Mr. Bates must ballast, so too does Downton Abbey rely upon television’s most affecting and manipulative contrivances.  Every technical aspect of the show gongs with intelligence, or, if not intelligence, intense care for what is being conveyed.  But, though the show can operate as exemplar of how television can strike the golden symmetry between entertainment and art, it also demonstrates the extent to which literary strategies have wormed into television in the wake of The Sopranos, The Wire, arguably John From Cincinnati.  Characters characterize and re-characterize themselves, plot lines unfurl over the course of a season, if not multiple seasons.  It has fierce sense of setting, time period, the subjects at hand.  It’s methodology is demonstrably novelistic, and those elements may not be drawn from the best novels, but the show’s execution presents the argument for television’s supplanting of the written word as the predominant outlet of serialized story-telling, if not story-telling in general; that image could conquer the written word if it understands the written word enough.

The evolution of narrative storytelling may, in the end, not allow for multiple varieties.  And who is to say we would be worse off if books and literature fell to the way side?

I would, doy.  I’m not vlogging this post for a reason.  Words do things that images can’t, as images do things words can’t, and back, and forth, and the two mediums should not be mutually exclusive.  They should interact, for the betterment of each respective medium, and for the betterment of the reader, the viewer, the audience.

Not to say television doesn’t scare me.  Not to say what Downton Abbey says about the American television viewer doesn’t scare me.

Because when you’re dealing with television, with that degree of cultural and societal saturation, scares are legion.  Like, could the American infatuation with Downton Abbey be an unconscious acknowledgement of two centuries worth of American denial of the class system, of a collective yearning for an honest confrontation of these strict stratifications, that the refutation of the barrier is but another barrier?  Like, does Downton Abbey‘s captive, modern audience mourn for a time when communication was trivialized by facility, a time that, more than ever, is unable to be returned to? Like-and this goes to a lesser degree with Mad Men-why is the body politic so keen on shows that completely eschew the existence of minorities, that lionize white hegemony over society to a caricatured degree (Devil’s Advocating: Mad Men had Carla.  Downtown Abbey had Mr. Pamuk.  Note the past tenses employed.)?  Like, why waste so much time not only watching television but then thinking about watching television?

Well, because, and this may not have been the case before, now people are thinking about why they watch television, which is worth something.  It’s worth the time.

Downton Abbey Season One is streaming on Netflix (nee Quickster).