The Allure of the British Costume Drama

If you traffic much in Catholic blogs, you’ll have heard the strange place and people names that make up much of the TV consumed by this segment of the population: Granchester, Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, Lark Rise to Candleford, Foyle’s War, and now Poldark.

J and I are guilty of indulging in the historical drama, too. It’s a tiny trend, but I think it makes sense. After all, most of these shows concern themselves with the question of how to live — what I should do versus what do I want. Lord Grantham wants to save the estate, not just for his own continued privilege but to provide for the household for whom he feels an inherited obligation. Ross Poldark makes a mistake, taking advantage of someone under his protection, and determines to make it right by providing for her. On the other hand, shows like Grey’s Anatomy are much more concerned with the deeply individualistic what do I want. (Or who do I want?) And that can be fun, soapy escapism. But for someone in the trenches of grown-up life, trying to figure out what one ought to do — especially in light of community and Church authority — is a much more central question.

In these dramas, the only Catholic character who comes to mind is the (dreamy!) Tom Branson, but for most of the characters, church is an intrinsic part of the rhythm of life, whatever their conflicted relationship with faith might be. This, too, is something with which we contemporary American Catholics can identify. Christopher Foyle quietly attends church between solving crimes; Reverend Sidney Chambers tries to reconcile his calling with the brokenness he sees in his town and which haunts his memories of the war. The young midwives who find themselves living at an inner-city Anglican convent see up close the lives of religious. Contemporary American primetime television has plenty of weddings, but the BBC historical drama also offers baptisms, funerals, even the occasional boring old Sunday worship.

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Your worship would never be boring, Rev. Chambers.

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A baptism brings all the Crawleys to the (Johnny Foreigner papist) church

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Compare this with the Braverman clan of Parenthood, whose religion is baseball (though there’s a refreshing foray into faith with Jabbar’s praying in Season 4), or Gilmore Girls, which remains resolutely ignorant of even such obvious differences as Catholic imagery and fundamentalist distaste for crucifixes. I adore those Gilmore girls, but are these ladies really comfortable in a church?

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WHAT ARE YOU DOING THERE, RON SWANSON?!

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I don’t need or even want all my characters to be devout, wooden caricatures of proper faith, but I like it when a show at least admits religion as a factor in the everyday lives of some of its characters. You’ll notice that some of the posts linked above have fights to pick with the historical dramas, and that’s how it should be in good television. After all, I’m not looking for didacticism in my TV, and I shy away from just about anything labeled “inspirational.” Instead, these shows are asking real questions and standing for something, and while it doesn’t always align with the Catholic worldview, at least they’re trying. Because TV can do better than “I believe in good…versus evil.

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Starting a petition for the inclusion of more nuns on television — who’s with me?

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Author: Katherine Grimm Bowers

Babies. Books. Fledgling housewifery. Once and future librarian. Catholic. Always thinking about chocolate ice cream.

3 thoughts on “The Allure of the British Costume Drama”

  1. I’m definitely a British costume drama lover and tend to run in those circles as well. This makes so much sense as to the appeal for American Catholics! And lol to Gilmore Girls. The writers are really so painfully clueless when it comes to religion.

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