What do Western reruns, PBS, and the 700 Club have in common? At first glance nothing but non-prime time channels. But a deeper look reveals much more common ground than you might expect.
Elements of the Christian gospel story are threaded into the popular PBS serial drama Downton Abbey and the same archetypes can be found in the good old weekly western. If you haven’t ever watched Gunsmoke or Downton Abbey pull up a chair and I’ll explain myself.
Marshall Matt Dillon is the strong silent type, a fair-minded, expert gun-slinging law man in Dodge City during the days of the American Wild West (yes, the ‘get out of Dodge’ Dodge) The local saloon is run by Miss Kitty, a mature but sparkly-eyed, seasoned red-head who runs a tight saloon, mostly with those eyes. Miss Kitty is a woman of principles, but somehow you know that somewhere along the line, some of her principles have taken the practical low road. The thing that promises to redeem Miss Kitty (she does run a brothel, after all) is Dillon’s regard for her, which is obvious in every episode. The hour long segments include a sideshow from deputy Festus, a Barney Fife- like character with a southern twang, and Doc Adams, a crusty old country doctor who does most of his procedures with the anesthetic of a good stiff drink, one for the patient and one for him, afterwards. Festus and Doc put up a good show of hating each other, but no one really believes it. The TV series had a 20 year run, after quite a bit of popularity as a radio show, and ended in 1975, and as far as I know, with no overt romance between Dillon and Miss Kitty.
Across the pond, but not too far away in time, the British household of Downton Abbey is finding its way in a changing world. The head of the house has three daughters, neither of whom can legally inherit his estate. Mary, the eldest, has a secret concerning her virtue that keeps her from the obvious choice, the heir apparent, Matthew Crawley, a man of honor and humility who desperately wants to do his part to save the family fortune. Shame keeps Mary from Matthew, but his regard for her is obvious, and the viewer feels that if he were privy to the incriminating information, he would still love her. The many sideshow characters include the ever proper butler, Carson and prim housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, cook Mrs. Patmore and scullery maid Daisy, all servants in the ‘downstairs’ storylines. Rising above the tapestry of this intertwining drama is the redemption of Mary. It is Matthew’s love for her which imparts to her the worth she cannot see in herself. At the end of the second season, Matthew and Mary are still in romantic gridlock. Although the previews for season three are out, they show nothing of the culmination of Matthew and Mary’s predicament.
The real corollary I see in these two cinematic creations is in the male savior figure (both named Matthew, incidentally) and the female in need of redemption. Nowhere is this story more poignant than in the New Testament narrative of Christ the bridegroom and a broken world-the church as His bride. I believe it is our knowledge of the reality of our own personal redemption that causes stories like these to resonate and capture our attention. Nor is their appeal gender-specific. Gunsmoke had wide appeal among men, and Downton Abbey has primarily female followers.
“God made Man because He loves stories.” said Elie Weisel. Indeed, we are His story. But it’s not the final season. Never have we needed redemption so much. Never has a story been in such need of a happy ending.