Our "Downton Abbey" family ritual: Thanks for the memories, PBS

Now in season 3, "Downton Abbey" has become our Sunday evening family ritual, like "Murder She Wrote" before it, or "Bonanza" before that. It makes the electronic hearth safe again -- and it satisfies a kid as much as "Glee."

Downton Abbey's third season starts Sunday: A family is addicted to it and it's all good.

Conversation over the leftover roast dinner the other night suddenly got very spicy when I mentioned  we’re going to have our Sunday evenings cut out for us now because “Downton is back.”

“Oh YEAH-uh!” said my 15-year-old daughter in a near milk-spew, as excited as if it were a new KPatz Twilight movie. She’s no PBS nerd, but she’s as addicted to the Edwardian soap as her mom and dad.

Why do we love it?

As much as I’ve enforced the “no TV” rule throughout Ellen’s childhood, I have to admit: I love the feeling of the Sunday-night ritual of getting Mom, Dad, Kid and Dog together on the couch, staring into the flat screen and sharing the tangle of angsts, glories, irritations, and loves of Downton for 60 minutes – as well as our own irritations when that 60 minutes is up. It’s like having our own cozy little tea time – only we’re dressed in pajamas and Queenie tends to bark when we get too unruly about the latest injustice to passive-aggressive Bates.

I revel in every moment from that rear-view Lab shot in the opening credits to the brutal cliffhanger closings and all the in-between of the fine cutlery of Maggie Smith’s one-liners, the copper pots and pans that make even English fare look good, and the desire to just reach out and touch someone (an encouraging cheek squeeze in the case of goofy servant Daisy, a firm pinch for middle-Crawley-daughter Edith, and a bear hug for butler Mr. Carson). And, I’m able to suspend disbelief (I’m talking to you New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley!) of the show being unrealistic treacle because ... I just want to. I even succumbed to Boston public television’s WGBH membership drive just to get that “Free Bates” T-shirt they were offering.

My husband considers the show just  “a cracking-good old-fashioned soap opera of a story” that substitutes rich characters for the modern TV failsafe of video game action or cheap humor.  And, like me, he likes his TV ritual and he likes it on Sunday nights – and rarely any other time –  as a cozy family thing going back to “Bonanza” and “Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” and “Matlock” and “Murder She Wrote.”

We think this ritual is sinking in to another generation with Ellen because of Downton. And even with the slightly adult themes some parents have objected to in web chatter – such as the gay kiss in the first season between scheming Thomas the footman and a visiting duke – we both feel a lot happier sitting down with our daughter to watch an hour of parlor lit than “Glee” or “Gossip Girl.”

Ellen’s favorite character is Sybil “the rebellious sister who ran away for love,” she says. “Because she’s independent and unselfish.”  But as romantic as her feelings are about that character, Ellen’s pretty unsentimental about the ritual her dad and I love. She says she’d be into Downton whether we watched it together or not. I’m just not sure, though, that she’d ever have been exposed to it without us – PBS isn’t her first stop when given free rein with the remote, and she claims there’s no discussion of the show among friends because she thinks no one her age has ever heard of it. 

I called Martha Matlaw, a former middle school English teacher of Ellen’s whose love of good stories really inspires kids, to find out if her students are chattering about the third season opener this weekend, and she confirmed Ellen’s unscientific sense of it: The kids don’t seem to be talking about it. But, she discovered one student who watches with her family. So Ellen’s got company in 7th grader Gia Bond, whose favorite Downton denizen is also Sybil because “she’s so different from the other characters ... and [because] she wants to be a doctor.”

Gia’s mom, Erica, says the family watched the first season in “3-episode marathons” on Netflix because of all the buzz about it on Facebook, just like we did. And now they’re all waiting excitedly, just like us, for the 3rd season. Well, all except Gia’s little 8-year-old brother who doesn’t like it and goes to bed before they watch the show.

The Bonds sit together on the couch, just like us, and, says Gia, “if something upsets us we usually yell at the TV like it’s a baseball game.”

Even though Ellen and Gia think they’re outliers, I think there are a whole lot of families like us who’ll be on the couch Sunday, together, rooting for the good guys – “Free Bates!” – jeering at the bad guys,  admiring the clothes and creating family memories around the electronic hearth for another generation. It’s all good.

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