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Steinberg: Why ‘Downton Abbey’?

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Chicagoans watch four hours and 47 minutes of television a day, on average, according to Nielsen, making us 13th in the ranking of big city TV viewing, a full hour less than glued-to-the-tube Cleveland, where they watch nearly six hours a day, one quarter of the time available for humans to live.

Having spent my first 18 years in the Cleveland area, I can explain. You watch a lot of TV because, well, otherwise, there you are, in Cleveland.

I tend to sniff at television. When people ask how I manage to write a regular newspaper column plus magazine articles and a steady stream of books, I reply, “I never watch TV.”

It’s true. Excluding Bulls games, I don’t turn the thing on, and never at a set time to watch a particular show. I haven’t seen “Game of Thrones” or “Empire” or “Broad City” or “Veep” — in fact, I had to Google “Top TV shows” to generate the list of programs I haven’t seen, because otherwise nothing came to mind.

Since avoiding TV sounds precious, and I try to keep an honest column here, I feel compelled to confess that I recently went off the TV wagon, big time.

Two words: “Downton Abbey.”


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Not only have I watched every minute of the first five seasons and the four (!) shows so far this year, the sixth and final season, but I’ve done so since the autumn, in one glorious orgy of elegant dinners and witty retorts and scullery drama. At some point every Sunday I look up and exclaim “Downton Abbey!” the way a 4-year-old would say, “Christmas!”

It was all an accident. Half a decade of PBS hype sluiced off me without effect, water off a duck’s back. We were far from the lure of television — or so we thought — on vacation in October, hiking in Pennsylvania. My wife had found the picturesque hamlet of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and booked us in a picturesque bed and breakfast that had a decidedly unpicturesque flat-screen television.

After an exhausting day hiking in the Lehigh State Park, she suggested we watch something and scanned the drawer full of DVDs hidden in a breakfront. We were on vacation, so I said sure, pick something, and she chose the first season of “Downton Abbey.”

That was it. I think we watched three episodes the first night, and the other five episodes on the disc over the next two evenings.

The moment we got home, I hot-footed over to the library, relieved to find a linear foot of the series. It’s not just me.

What is “Downton Abbey”? A series about an aristocratic British family, the Crawleys, aka Lord Grantham, his three daughters, at first, his wife, an American, and mother, the dowager, played with plain-spoken gusto by the revered Maggie Smith, and their squad of servants: the jovial, red-faced cook, Mrs. Patmore, the dignified, stiff head butler Mr. Carson, the scheming footman Thomas Barrow, and the rest.

Why is it good? To be honest, watching the first 40 episodes or so, I never asked myself the question. It would seem obvious, like wondering: Why is this hot fudge sundae good?

It’s the characters. My favorite, Lady Mary Crawley, she of the arched eyebrow, imperially slim, always soigne, composed, even in mire, struggling to save dehydrated pigs (it gets complicated).

And the clothes, which start out Edwardian and moves into high flapper as the series unfolds (it begins in 1912, with a messenger boy delivering news of the sinking of the Titanic, and now it’s in the mid-1920s). I don’t think I’ve said, “Look at that dress!” so much in my life.

And the scenery, the English countryside around the abbey — actually Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England.

The intertwining plots, with enough drop-jaw shocks to keep you picking over every bit of dialogue.

But bottom line is, all the characters are good at heart. Even scheming, sniping Mr. Barrow quickly becomes an object of sympathy. I’m sure any given family of real British aristocrats caught at their actual dinner table would be far more vile, a dull ragtag of bigoted, small-minded, anti-Semitic alcoholics. (What was D.H. Lawrence’s famous line, written in 1912, exactly when the curtain goes up on Downton? “Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the sniveling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today.”)

Not the Crawleys. And a pleasant lie is what we go to art to find, a relief from stark, poor and inelegant life. I’ll miss it.

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