IF DYSFUNCTIONAL American politics has become an obstacle to meaningful social introspection, how does this nation reckon with its grave problems? Only indirectly. Some struggles are too deep for words, and can be grappled with more by implication and sublimation than by confrontation. The entertainment we choose provides a better window into our real anxieties than our public dialogue does, even - or maybe especially - when the stakes are high.
In September of 1990, for example, the nation was at the terrifying threshold of major war. The previous month had seen the launching of Operation Desert Shield, the initiating stage of the rollback of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. It was the first massive deployment of US troops since Vietnam, involving the mobilization of reservists, the assembly of a vast armada, and preparations for catastrophic ignition of oil fields and grotesque biological warfare.
Ultimately, the assembled coalition forces would number most of a million, and Desert Storm would be unleashed in January. But by late September, an unaddressed war anxiety was already peaking. It was just then, across five consecutive evenings, that PBS broadcast the Ken Burns documentary series “The Civil War.’’ Forty million people obsessively watched.
Never had war seemed so purposeful or so romantic as in Burns’ rendition. With plaintive fiddle music, delicate panning of sepia photos, understated reading of eloquent letters and diary excerpts, and the unforgettably doleful voice of Shelby Foote, the US Civil War was transformed from carnage into sublimity. Americans faced with the coming Gulf War were not only braced but uplifted. In the PBS series, the artifice of nostalgia transformed not only a past horror, but the brutishness of a present threat.
Whether the series helped set the United States on a disastrous war trajectory from which it has yet to veer is another question entirely.
In the early 1980s, another PBS blockbuster, rife with nostalgia and melodrama, had similarly provided an indirect mode of reckoning with buried troubles, both past and future. “Brideshead Revisited,’’ based on the 1945 Evelyn Waugh novel, told the story of Charles Ryder, Sebastian Flyte, and Flyte’s aristocratic family. Set in the aftermath of World War I, the story struck chords of moral dislocation that resonated in post-Vietnam America. The intense homoerotic undercurrents flowing between Ryder and Flyte hinted at what was often described in postwar Britain as a crisis of masculinity, but they resonated in the faux-macho America of the early Reagan era, too. Indeed, just as the series was drawing its cult following, the AIDS epidemic was beginning to force a massive mutation in American attitudes toward gays - not only in their suffering, but in the nobility with which the gay community responded to the disease. In Ryder and Flyte, viewers saw flashes both of what their societies had just been through, and were about to undergo.
The success of “Brideshead Revisited’’ has been used as a measure of PBS’s current hit series, “Downton Abbey,’’ another Great War, great mansion melodrama. Drawing between 4 million and 6 million American viewers, barely over a tenth of what “The Civil War’’ drew, the British import is still a major US cultural phenomenon, and its theme suggests why. The central figure, the Earl of Grantham, is a paterfamilias with a problem - Will he be able to preserve the legacy he has inherited, and hand it on to a future generation of his family? In relation to the social crisis generated by World War I - and by the chokeholds of gender and class - the tragic answer is obvious, even if the anguish is gilded.
In America, if on a vastly different social scale, the problem of what - if anything - the next generation will inherit resonates loudly, and with good reason. Our politicians wield the fear of national decline as a club with which to beat one another, while citizens register it as a defining reality. Economic distress, class resentment, lowered prospects for young people, cultural dislocation, and a terrible eviscerating of moral purpose - all played out against the backdrop of a futile and emasculating war: Such are the explicit motifs of “Downton Abbey.’’
In watching how the Crawley family confronts what are, in fact, only complications of plot, we viewers are diligently reckoning with the critical issue of what we’re leaving to our children. The beginning of the solution to an apparently insoluble problem is to feel the pain of it, and “Downton Abbey’’ is helping us do that.James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.