I watched Downton Abbey for the first time last night — late to the party as always. My mother is a Downton Abbey acolyte who is trying to bring the rest of the family into the fold. I was curious about what had gotten everyone so hooked. My cell phone rang at 8:51 p.m. while I was en route to my mom’s. “Are you all right?” she asked, concern in her voice.
“I’m just in Key Food picking up some dinner. Do you need anything?” I asked.
“No, just get here by 9!”
When I walked in the door, Laura Linney popped up on the screen. “Hi, Laura!” my mom chirped.
Forty-five minutes and one marriage of convenience, one engagement of convenience, one child out of wedlock, one new mother turned war widow who might be lying to cover up a child out of wedlock, one broken engagement due to sexual dysfunction brought on by war wounds, and one case of blackmail later, my mother’s nose was about 4 in. from the screen trying to guess what twisted juiciness next week’s installment might bring. “She’s going to push him down the stairs and kill him!” she predicted about Mr. Bates’ jilted wife.
Downton Abbey is not a period drama — it’s a soap opera. It’s a finely milled bar of English lavender wrapped with tissue and gold cord and nestled in a pretty box, but it has more in common with One Life to Live than Brideshead. Actually, make that General Hospital, since the mansion that gives the show its title has now been repurposed into an infirmary for soldiers coming back from the front. But it’s a soap that we can all feel good about and often find other excuses for watching.
“The war changes everything! Society gets totally turned upside down!” says my mother, who has never watched a daytime drama in her life.
I explain to her the structural similarities to the soap opera, the frequent doses of highly enjoyable drama that leave you like a rat pushing a lever for another hit.
“It’s about our cultural heritage!” she says, trying again, before wising up to my nefarious plot. “Don’t write anything snarky on the Internet! You will make a lot of people very angry! You’ve only watched one episode and there are 19!”
Sorry, Mom. But I’ll see you next Sunday!