The Real and the Unreal: Downton Abbey and Joys of Distraction

Tonight the announcer for PBS promises “surprises and scandals,” but today has been full of them in real life–forget Masterpiece Theater.

This morning everyone was stunned at the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his New York City apartment.  He was only 46. Winner of an Academy Award for his portrayal of Truman Capote, praised for his stage work with such plays as Death of a Salesman, his talent was indisputable.


He was found with heroin.  He had apparently struggled with addiction.  He had three small children.  He was supposed to see them today.  Something went terribly wrong.  But it had been going wrong for awhile.  Richard Brody has already written a piece for The New Yorker praising his stratospheric talent, and suggesting that in some way his genius was so great, so incomprehensible to mere mortals, that, somehow, he had died for his art. This is the stutter of grief.

But of course that is what we want to think:  the narrative we create that softens the blow.  I don’t blame Mr. Brody.  Philip Seymour Hoffman was probably some kind of theatrical genius, but his death is a reminder that genius means that someone is superlative in some things, but not everything.  Even the talented and successful still need help sometimes.  Even icons are human.

But really, he died for drugs, and no amount of play-acting can change that sad and tragic fact.  We have so much knowledge, but it seems like we have a long way to go to get through the labyrinth of addiction that keeps so many unable to exit its circuitous routes.

So I self-medicate with books, the Super Bowl.  I watch Renee Fleming sing the National Athem, and I marvel.  I watch it over and over on youtube–her genius is in singing.  She is in a league of her own.

I try to watch the game, but it is too hard to watch.  I quip that if one more Bronco goes down, I will have to call PETA.  But really, all I can think about is how queasy I feel about Philip Seymour Hoffman, and how I hope to heaven my son never dabbles in drugs.  That is the thing about other people’s tragedies:  they make you imagine your own.

Then I do schoolwork, think about King Lear, think about tragedy, think about pity and fear, and how those emotions never seem to run out.  I wait for Downton Abbey to come on.


There are some good lines and moments tonight on the show; it is a welcome distraction.  For example:

“You are nervous, Alfred, because you are intelligent.” –Mr. Carson

“Just remember you are as good as any Frenchman, I don’t care what you say.” –Mrs. Patmore.

Mrs. Crawley snooping!  EXCELLENT!  Snobby restaurants!  Aristocratic adultery and unplanned pregnancy!  Making out with musicians!

“I cannot fight a war on every front!” –Mr. Carson on finally rehiring Mr. Mosely

As they show the preview for next week, I think what a solace it is to think that having a band at a birthday party is shocking.  What a luxury to wonder who is stealing Violet’s letter openers.  How delicious to hear Violet say she has never been “wrong.”

How I keep thinking of Anna, who had been brutally raped a few episodes ago, saying “I am not a victim.  That is not who I am.”  And I admit it:  a Masterpiece Theater soap opera has inspired me, just when one of my real-life acting heroes has broken so many hearts.

In other words, Downton Abbey and the joys of distraction have kicked in, just when we needed it most.

This is how artifice sometimes works:  it drugs us from the unbearable moments in real life, but it isn’t lethal.  It is the little anesthetic that saves us from the bigger blows.  It is the unreality that helps us when real life cannot be believed, it is so heavy, so hard to take.

3 responses to “The Real and the Unreal: Downton Abbey and Joys of Distraction”

  1. “…his death is a reminder that genius means that someone is superlative in some things, but not everything.” — love this, Dr. Wilson.

    I just LOVE this blog. You have such a way with words.

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