I’m an over-the-top “Downton Abbey” fan. Lately I’ve been avoiding all Sunday night engagements (at least those that continue past 9:00 PM ET) and am downcast if I haven’t heard the Dowager Countess’s most recent aperçu. Despite the show’s manifest weaknesses (sorry, but didn’t amnesia go out with Susan Lucci?) and because of its strengths (read: Dame Maggie Smith) I’ve been hooked since Season One. Like most DA fans, I’ve watched “Sh*t the Dowager Countess Says” on Youtube more times than I care to admit, and thought that SNL’s Spike TV parody of the show was, hands downton, the funniest thing I’ve seen all year that didn’t feature Melissa McCarthy.
So why do I feel a little guilty when I turn on PBS every week?
In Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited (and in the popular 1981 TV series as well) the flamboyant Oxford aesthete Anthony Blanche addresses the protagonist Charles Ryder, a budding artist who is besotted with a Catholic noble family, the Marchmains. Over drinks, Blanche darkly warns Ryder against getting too close to Lord and Lady Marchmain and their privileged children. Why? For fear of the “simple, creamy English charm” that will blight Charles’s creativity and his critical faculties.
“It spots and kills anything it touches,” says Blanche, over four Brandy Alexanders. To underline this, Waugh has Blanche repeat his condemnation years later, after he visits an exhibition of Charles’s paintings.
That line stayed with me all these years (yes, I was addicted to “Brideshead” even as a college student). And I sometimes think of it as I take in the costumes and furniture and manners and breeding and general hauteur of the denizens of America’s favorite English country house. Can charm, as Anthony Blanche warned Charles Ryder, blind our critical faculties? Is all forgiven when people are charming, rich and well mannered, or more specifically (and literally in this case), to the manor born? I fear so.
In other words, I feel slightly guilty liking Downton because....
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