So, two Sundays ago the six year saga of Lord Grantham and his unmarried daughters finally came to an end. And I have to confess I got a little teary-eyed—just like your average girly man. Several other friends mentioned having the same deep sadness about the ending of the best TV drama ever.
It was already in its third season when I discovered Downton Abbey. I’d heard of it, of course, but I thought Down Town Abbey was likely about a monastery in some 19th century English inner city. Then I saw a Youtube parody and realized that it was somewhat similar to an old PBS drama that I never watched: Upstairs, Downstairs. Though I knew Downton was on PBS, I didn’t know what night or what time, and though highly recommended by several friends I had no interest in checking it out.
Then a friend from one of my home church groups gave me the first season on DVD. I thought that was very kind of her, but I still didn’t feel all that compelled to view it. Then, after having the discs for several months, one very slow evening at home I thought, “Oh, what the heck” and I plugged Episode One into the DVD-player. The rest is history. It wasn’t 30-min in before I, like so many others, was totally hooked. And then another friend loaned me the second season on DVD.
One thing that struck me after viewing the first two seasons was that in addition to being incredibly well written, all the main characters are decent people trying to do the right thing–and in most cases succeeding. They are people of substance and dignity. It is after all the Britain of a century ago—a society predicated on good manners and social standing—set well before the era of soccer hooligans and social welfare. And one of the things that makes the saga especially interesting is that its dozen years occurs during a time of rapid change. Everything is destroyed and rebuilt by the war to end all wars—the staid Edwardians give way to the flappers of the roaring 1920s.
The Downton Abbey saga begins in 1912, with the sinking of the Titanic, and ends in 1924. And in the final two episodes every plot line was happily resolved. But I don’t think we’ve heard the last of Lady Mary, Carson, Bates, Thomas, Anna, Lady Edith or the dowager countess Violet. I’ve heard a rumor about a Downton Abbey movie. However, even if that doesn’t happen I think the show will be resurrected after a year or two hiatus. Julian Fellowes is simply too much of a kind-hearted gentleman to allow so many to remain in mourning.
Then about two years ago I chanced upon a Bill Moyers interview with Marilynne Robinson on PBS. I’m not a particularly big fan of Moyers as I think he tends to be a little smug, but I watched a few minutes of the dialog with the articulate 60-ish looking woman he was interviewing. I had never heard of her, but it only took a minute or two to realize she was a person of great spiritual depth and insight. It was mentioned that she taught at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. That program is the pinnacle for creative writing. It was also revealed that she was a self-described Calvinist. In this secular era that struck me as particularly odd and intriguing. Even Moyers seemed a bit in awe of her.
They were discussing Lila, the then just published final novel in the trilogy set in the fictional Iowa village of Gilead in the 1950s. Gilead, Home and Lila are all unabashedly spiritual novels. The trilogy narrates the saga of two life-long friends and pastors (Rev. Ames and Rev. Boughton) and their families. The characters, as in Downton Abbey, are complex. They are not one-dimensional and even the few antagonists have redeeming qualities.
While Downton Abbey is not an overtly Christian or even spiritual show, I believe that when good people are portrayed doing the right thing, such as the being forgiving and generous, and succeeding in spite of their pettiness, God is present. And Ms. Robinson’s Gilead trilogy plus the Downton PBS saga have greatly enriched my life the past three years.
To the dim bulbs of contemporary culture, the folks raised on superheroes, dancing stars and endless CSIs, could any story seem duller than two elderly pastors in a small town in 1956 Iowa? Well, perhaps only a melodrama featuring a count’s family and his manor’s staff in WWI era Britain.
For me, what comes across in both the Gilead and Downton sagas is that, in spite of being opaque God is good, life can be beautiful, there is redemption and some stories do end happily.