Confessions of a Downton Convert

File Photo handout: From left to right: Dame Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey series 3.
File Photo handout: From left to right: Dame Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey series 3.
Photo courtesy of Carnival Films

The creator of PBS’s Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, made an appearance on Andrea Mitchell Reports Tuesday–by way of an interview with NBC’s veteran sports broadcaster Mary Carillo. Carillo visited the set of the Abbey as the series filmed its third season this summer in London.

As one of Andrea’s producers based at our 30 Rockefeller HQ in NYC, I was awarded this plum assignment this weekend without management knowing that I wasn’t worthy.

Until three weeks ago, I was a won’t-give-it-a-chance Abbey naysayer.

So you see, this assignment wasn’t just a production: this was a penance. My own come-to-Crawley moment.

I’m sharing the details of my own conversion because I was proudly one of the 7.9 million people who tuned into PBS for the Sunday night premiere of season three.

But instead of kicking up my feet to indulge, I sat at home, laptop out, digital clock out, and “running log” page prepped. In television parlance, I was committed to drafting a “live, real-time” log, a rough verbatim transcript–the sort of thing I do daily when the president speaks, or a member of Congress takes to a microphone.

I planned to write up my own log of memorable sound bites, scenes, visual moments, and such to hand to our video tape producers and editors the following day. I watched the show with the sort of earnestness that I employed when I watched the Senate floor all Christmas break for a glimpse of Senators McConnell and Reid for the latest in the fiscal cliff drama. Here, I was awaiting the golden moment–the prize award to all the Downton faithful, the wedding of reed-thin Lady Mary, and cousin Matthew “Piercing Eyes” Crawley.

It was yet another turning point in my television repertoire, and one that came only after a miserable episode of my own.

Confession: I’m an action-adventure kind of gal. It takes an explosion or a ridiculous feat of running on top of moving trains to be worthy of my attention.

Then I got the kind of stomach flu that provides its own explosions.

In the throes of absolute misery, there was nowhere to turn except  Downton Abbey, season one, episode one on my X-Box.

It was a shaky start. The gilded panoramic shots of the Abbey, the idyllic, manicured lawns weren’t much of an inducement in the opening scenes.

But just a few minutes past the opening credits, I slowed down enough to commit a rare act: attentively listen to the dialogue, trail the nuances, and allow my eyes to feast on the magnificent costumes, the ornate décor, and the stately architecture. Instead of my senses racing from intermittent shocks of blaring noises and sights, I had to settle for a pace and flow that relies on a mastery of genuine storytelling. And it was spellbinding. It was deliciously addictive, amusing, and utterly entertaining. I came to relish every polite but piercing zinger from Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, every longing glance between Lady Mary and cousin Matthew, and wince at each nasty act of malevolence and self-preservation by footman Thomas. It simply drew me in and carried me through flu, fever, chills, and all manner of unprintable things in the recovery.

Another confession: there’s something about Downton Abbey that makes one wistful, wistful for an elegance, a propriety, and decorum that is a relic today: the use of the King’s English, the correct subject-verb agreement, the spine-stiff posture, and the unwritten rules of society, and civil behavior.

Much has been written already about why the Abbey captivates us on the other side of the pond: the beauty, the escapism, the history, the zeitgeist of the period.

I say Yes and Amen to all of the above.

And I’d add in my two cents (which may be worth exactly that)…I suspect we all see a bit of ourselves in each of the characters we admire, adore, loathe, and disdain. I suspect we see ourselves in the upstairs, the downstairs, the unrequited love, the greed, ambition, striving, the goodness, the sweetness, the jealousy, remorse, and everything else we see so masterfully displayed in the Abbey. None of us are immune to the rise and fall of reputations, bank accounts, real estate, relationships, and virtues that we have watched our characters live out–perhaps simultaneously to our own dramas.

My last confession: I’m now a loyalist, not a member of the loyal opposition, but a true loyalist to Julian Fellowes’ creation. I salute him and all the gifted souls who bring Downton Abbey to life.

God save the Queen, and God save the Abbey.

Confessions of a Downton Convert