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Posted: February 24, 2012 12:00 a.m.

Mourn the loss of civility

So there we were last Sunday evening, huddled in PJ's on the couch, jockeying for space with a dog that thinks the couch belongs to him alone. We were waiting eagerly, even breathlessly, for the trumpets that would announce the beginning of the last episode of the season for "Downton Abbey" on PBS. No doubt about it, we've joined the millions of Downton devotees who find themselves completely hooked - addicted, even - to the upstairs/downstairs fortunes of the aristocratic Grantham family and its household staff residing in a magnificent Yorkshire mansion in a period of time that began with the sinking of the Titanic and has now ended with the dawn of 1920.

The Guinness Book of World Records calls the series "the most critically acclaimed British television show of all time." The New York Times calls it an "instant classic"; the Wall Street Journal, "impossible to resist"; and Variety, "compulsively watchable."

With the end of last Sunday's program, we millions felt the air go out of us like a deflating tire in a collective sigh of regret, loss and sadness because it will be another year, it is said, before the show returns. We are left to re-runs and can only speculate on the fate of the series' compelling cast of characters left hanging in unresolved crises like chads on a Florida ballot.

Oh, I hope you have discovered Downton Abbey's charms and have fallen into dopey love with it, but in all honesty, I must say we initially resisted the fervor that surrounded the first season. There was just something about not wanting to follow the masses anywhere. But the sorry state of TV fare drove us back to PBS where we found ourselves unable to resist the intricately woven story lines. (One lonely critic I found has described them, however, as "wooden, manipulative plot lines.")

In case you're in the dark, Downton Abbey has thus far chronicled the lives of its inhabitants as they transition from post-Edwardian England during the reign of King George V to the coming of the modern age after World War I concludes. Its cast includes the Right Honourable Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, and wife Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, who as an American has provided the fortune needed to maintain the castle and its way of life. The Dowager Countess of Grantham Violet Crawley is Robert's mother who wields dry and deadly sarcasm like knives in the hands of a chef at Benihana's. Daughters are the calculating and mercurial Lady Mary Crawley, the solid and steadfast Lady Edith Crawley and the headstrong Lady Sybil Crawley, who ultimately runs away with the chauffeur. Robert's distant cousin Matthew Crawley is heir apparent to the castle because under English law at that time, daughters were not allowed to inherit. (His and Lady Mary's on again/off again romance has been maddening - at least to me! And incredibly, Matthew returned from the war as a paraplegic, only to rise spontaneously from his wheelchair one evening, "cured" in the blink of an eye. Really now?)

The household is run by the stern, barrel-chested butler named Carson and kindly Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper. Sarah O'Brien is Cora Crawley's maid, unworthy of the trust placed in her, and John Bates is Robert's valet, undeserving of the twists the series' writer has concocted to keep him from his true love, Anna, chief housemaid. Mrs. Patmore is the chatty, cheerful cook, and Thomas Barrow, the footman, provides a dose of in-house villainy. There are even more characters in smaller roles, and each get their turn in one plot or another.

I've been trying to figure out the allure of Downton Abbey. Is it the eye-candy of a series taped in the English countryside in a spectacular edifice that actually exists, Highclere Castle built for the First Earl of Carnorvon in the early 18th Century? Is it the elegant costuming? Is it the astonishingly well cast actors in their roles? Is it the always-surprising twists and turns in the lives of the upstairs and downstairs inhabitants?

The answer is yes. But there might be another factor at play in our collective fascination. Perhaps there exists in some of us a deep-seated and un-objective grasping for something, anything that exhibits the appearance of civilized order, unquestionable propriety, and non-negotiable expectations for behavior toward others. The times in which we live offer little to satisfy these cravings. Everything around us seems unordered at best, even chaotic. Propriety is viewed as an old-fashioned and therefore unappreciated virtue, and having expectations of polite and proper behavior toward one another is wishful thinking in all too many cases. This is not a comment on the confining roles of women in the days of Downton, the fortunes consumed in the upkeep of the storied upper class and the killing workload required of the servant class, only wishful thinking for the days of propriety, good behavior and civility.


Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

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