I Fought PBS and PBS Won

Maybe I should have heeded Joe Strummer's obscene warning back in 1980. "He who fucks nuns/Will later join the church," the Clash's front man sang biliously on London Calling—and here I am 32 years later, watching Downton Abbey. I guess Joe had my number all along.

No doubt, this betrayal of my Jacobin youth won't seem excessively poignant to too many of you. That's not least because you're probably hooked on Downton Abbey yourself, but indulge me. When I was starting out as a TV reviewer—lured, like so many bright-eyed naifs, by the promise of groupies, big bucks, and high living—Village Voice readers soon got used to my heartlessness about PBS: "Off with those three little heads!" I once merrily wrote. More than anything else, public broadcasting's wan mania for importing high-toned Brit taradiddle got my goat, a prejudice dating back to my restless puberty.

The original Forsyte Saga, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Brideshead Revisited—the PBS versions of the Rosetta Stone, in other words? Ah, how I reviled them all. I made exceptions only for I, Claudius (pretty cool) and the Alec Guinness miniseries version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. One reason for my fondness for the latter was that the Cold War was still going on. Up to then, PBS's dramatic offerings had never stooped to notice anything that was still going on.

It wasn't just captiousness, honest. I'd been reared on mold-breaking pop critics who taught me to be suspicious of gentility as a comforting substitute for actual taste in any of the arts. Hence my certainty that the BBC's white-elephant droppings functioned Stateside as civilization porn for viewers whose deepest aesthetic longing was to dissociate themselves from their fellow citizens' vulgarity. Naturally, you'd never have guessed from PBS's rump-heavenward idolatry of Brit programming's superior elegance that plenty of Brits preferred The Benny Hill Show, as I did myself.

That wasn't the only goad. At the primal level of "Didn't we fight a revolution to get rid of this crap?", the left-wing patriot in me seethed along with the pop fan. It appalled me that a network tasked with upgrading American TV's quality—a mission with an unctuous side by definition—kept creaming over desiccated fantasies of Old World aristocracy, then acting bewildered when charged with out-of-touch elitism.

In those pre-Ken Burns days, Sesame Street aside—and wouldn't they have been happier if Big Bird had been getting the kiddies ready to go to Oxford?—public broadcasting's ventures into wooing the strange land called "America" were mostly confined to wheeling out some moth-eaten vintage Frank Sinatra TV special or the like during pledge drives. You could tell how breathless the network was at the slumming audacity of going all Gypsy Rose Lee to attract hoi polloi. No wonder the woodshed I used to take PBS to every few months was my happy place.

That's why the Ghost of Critic Past sometimes sticks an invisible whoopee cushion under my now middle-aged keester as I contentedly settle in each Sunday to catch up with the stoic, good-hearted Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his crusty old dowager mother (Maggie Smith), his American-heiress wife turned country-house grande dame (Elizabeth McGovern), and their sub-Austenesque trio of marriageable daughters (Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, and Jessica Brown-Findlay). Plus, of course, Brendan Coyle as Bates the valet, who's bound by more codes of honor than NSA cryptographers could crack in a century, the magisterially eyebrowed Jim Carter—presumably no relation to Jimmy—as Carson the butler (definitely no relation to me), and a couple of platoons of lesser characters all doing the upstairs-downstairs bit as if Johnny Rotten had never been born. Then again, by now, Johnny would probably kill for a guest shot on Downton Abbey, unless that's just me looking for company in my apostasy.

I can justify myself, needless to say. So far as the familiar PBS sin of secondhand prestige is concerned, to me it's a big point in Downton's favor that the series is a TV original, not an adaptation of some capital-L literary classic. In the bad old days, pedigrees of that sort were a constant reassurance to status-minded viewers that what might seem to be mediocre television was nonetheless unimpeachably classy.

Though my hunch is that creator-writer Julian Fellowes has dipped more than once into Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End, one of the few novels I did use to wish would get the Masterpiece Theater treatment someday—I still daydream of Stephen Fry as Tietjens—Downton Abbey isn't even pseudo-literature, let alone pseudo-profound. As synthetic as James Cameron's Titanic, albeit with a much better ear for period dialogue, it's an ace soap opera tricked up with convincing savvy about a vanished era's sociology and manners, as well as characters shrewdly conceived to straddle the cusp between satisfying stereotype and unpredictable individuality. (These aren't putdowns, folks—they're compliments. Good literature and good TV are two different things.) As a piece of storytelling, the series is also blessedly brisk and light-footed, meaning that even its sententious moments don't get dawdled over long enough to be too annoying.

Even so, having resisted the 2010-2011 debut season's siren call—old habits die hard, and so on—I didn't get hooked on Downton Abbey until life during wartime. Meaning World War I, the backdrop (and occasional foredrop) to the series' current season and a conflict I sometimes catch myself wishing would go on forever. My wife isn't any better: "More war! More war!" she yells at the screen after each too-brief scene of Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley—introduced last year as the Abbey's unexpected heir, and now a captain on the Western Front—pluckily doing the duty England expects of every man in the trenches.

The Abbey's conversion into a convalescent home for recovering casualties, the born-to-the-purple-versus-clad-in-the-khaki social changes epitomized by Thomas the onetime footman's (Rob James-Collier) re-emergence as a cocky Medical Corps sergeant in charge of running it, the earl himself togging up in his colonel's uniform for solidarity's sake despite the crushing humiliation of not being recalled to active service—all this has a Gone With the Wind appeal I'm helplessly smitten with. Brit panegyrics to their social betters in a vanished age of privilege are a form of nostalgia too pernicious for words, but Brits in their valorized Siegfried Sassoon mode will always move me. Whisper "the Somme," and I'm there with bells on.

So I rationalize my late-blooming crush on Downton Abbey, anyhow—and how my younger self would hoot. Not so deep down, this is the same PBS guff I despised, just retooled with more flair and less Classics Illustrated pomposity. Even viewers-like-someone-I-bet-I-can't-stand have been known to take to the blogosphere to ridicule Fellowes—recently ennobled himself as "Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, Dorset," by the way, and now a House of Lords Tory peer—for overdoing the Lord and Lady Bountiful virtues of the Earl of Grantham and his Yank-born but by now quite classimilated missus.

But I keep watching Downton Abbey. Have I mellowed, so help me? Have I—say it ain't so—changed? Not so much, if you ask me. But TV has. Once the tube's only extant certificate of "quality," PBS's imprimatur now means about as much as, say, the SyFy Channel's. Having failed in its mission, it strives for a niche—and has found one, to my surprise.

Nobody's idea of competition with HBO, AMC, or Lost creator J.J. Abrams when it comes to state-of-the-art TV, public broadcasting now defines our Prufockian inner middlebrow. It did all along, of course, but what once was miscast as an ideal is now just another facet of TV's post-millennial cornucopia. To be a Downton Abbey fan doesn't certify that you're superior to the herd; it just means the show suits your meaningless but cherished predilections. That I can live with. In an irony I should have seen coming 30-plus years ago, PBS has become my guilty pleasure.

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