My husband and I try not to watch much TV but, if a show has accents or war heroism or fancy ballrooms we pretty much can’t resist. We recently started on a seemingly random Turkish show at the recommendation of other bloggers and I’m shocked how hooked we are even with the unreliable subtitles. But this isn’t a new thing— even as a child, my favorite show, by far, was “Little House on the Prairie.”
And I don’t think I’m alone in my love of period dramas; “Downton Abbey” attracted 120 million viewers. But what is it about these shows that so many of us can’t get enough of? Sure, the costumes and landscapes are often lovely, but there seems to be something else. When I watch period dramas I get a feeling of comfort and stability— which is a little odd, actually, considering most of these shows feature quite a bit of violence, death, and catastrophe. Plenty of unsettling events happen. I’m very sensitive to things I watch and read and tend to have nightmares if I’m exposed to something scary or dramatic. And yet, I keep coming back to these shows. Why?
I think it’s because the worlds of period dramas typically operate under a clear code of ethics and values. In these times and places there was a general sense of trust in God, family, and country. There was a general understanding of the meaning of life and, especially, the meaning of, or reason for, enduring all the various sufferings.
Now, I know that many people will counter this with, yes, but how many people actually lived by that code? And I get it. These dramas are full of adultery and deceit and murder. Plenty of the characters are laden with temptations and doubts. Many of the storylines revolve directly around the evolution of these codes or even the rejection of them. But here’s the difference that remains: In these prior time periods, the codes still reigned supreme. Lady Mary might have brought that Turk into her bedroom, sure. But it’s not like anybody actually approved of it. Ross Poldark may have cheated on Demelza, but it’s obvious he was a rotten scoundrel for doing so. Back then, for better and for worse, you could count on your community to watch your back if you tripped up, morally speaking. And you could trust that most people were essentially striving for the same end goals. But now, you can’t be so sure what the person next to you thinks about life’s biggest questions and issues. You can’t be so sure that they’ll share your most basic understanding of good and evil.
So while we may not have near as many men filing off to the literal battlefield like they were in many of these shows— and thank goodness for that— we can all feel the cloud of cultural and moral instability around us. It’s so easy to feel kind of lonely and homesick in this day and age, no matter where you are– lonely and homesick for a place that simply doesn’t exist anymore.
No time period is perfect; I know that. The moral codes of past times contained gaping holes and contradictions which ignored and disrespected the human dignity of far too many people. Moreover, the freedom of thought and expression that so characterizes the modern world is, in many ways, a wonderful thing. There is always some hypocrisy within belief and value-based groups, but there was probably a lot more back then. Nowadays, blind faith is somewhat looked down upon, even within religious circles. We’re more likely to really think about what we believe and why. We’re also more likely to proactively seek out communities that build us up and encourage us. In other times, you might casually assume that everyone in your little town shared your values— only to be shocked and scandalized when they actually didn’t.
So why the wistful feelings for these times and places? Well, I don’t really wish I lived in England in the 1780’s or Russia in the 1910’s. I’m grateful for the good things we’ve gained and accomplished since then. But I can still look back on the things we’ve lost, long for them, and even imagine how we might find them again.
Maybe I’ll start with afternoon tea.
photos: http://littlehouseontheprairie.com; http://www.gbacg.org/current/downton-farewell.php