It’s time to come clean and confess. I owe TSW readers the truth, and just can’t go on living this secret any longer. I’ve been seeing someone. I can’t really say she’s my soul mate just yet, but I find her mesmerizing and alluring in her own peculiar way. She lives far beyond my state in life, but now I feel incomplete without her. There is little so painful as unrequited love. There! I’ve said it!
So, who is this new spark of joy in my life? Why, who else could she be but Lady Grantham, the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey? Yes, yes, I know she’s old enough to be my mother, but – like justice – love is blind, and sometimes it’s deaf and dumb, too. Most people who spend five minutes with the elder Lady Grantham want to flee for cover, but I see beyond this matriarchal conniver to a heart laid bare by a looming threat: the winds of change. The incomparable British actress, Maggie Smith, plays the role to perfection.
If you recall my post, “Jack Bauer Lost The Unit on Caprica,” then you could deduce from its clever title (Umm, thanks for noticing , the few television shows that got my weekly attention when I wrote it. “24,” “Lost,” “The Unit,” and “Caprica” are all gone now, and in that post I mourned that not much had come along to take their place in my excursions into the vast wasteland of television. I’m afraid I’m just not much of a consumer of pop culture.
Several readers made suggestions about their own favorite shows, and I tried out some of them. It’s hard to believe some TSW readers actually got up the nerve to suggest “Criminal Minds” to someone who lives every day surrounded by them. But I did try the show and like it now and then. Believe it or not, “Criminal Minds” is popular among prisoners, and most are still glad to see the good guys dispatch the bad guys each week. I guess that’s a good sign. Even in prison, sociopaths are considered the lunatic fringe. Those who actually root for the criminal minds on “Criminal Minds” won’t admit it, even in here.
Still, the culture I live in often feels more like cultural deprivation. Life in prison revolves around two primary forces: food and television. I’ve written about the former in “Guess What’s Coming to Dinner,” and a follow-up post, “Looking for Lunch in All the Wrong Places.” Most prisoners are always hungry, and always bored. Life in prison without television would be utter and expensive chaos. The boredom of prison is not relieved at taxpayer expense, however. As I pointed out recently in “The Conversion of Saint Paul,” election year always brings draconian proposals from politicians who want to be seen as tough on crime and criminals.
Prison is like a micro-society with an economy that reflects its parent culture’s. Tough economic times out there wreak havoc in here. Over the last two years, base pay for prisoner jobs was cut from $3.00 per day to $1.00 per day, and the budget for feeding prisoners was reduced to less than $1.00 per person per day. At the same time, the prison commissary just announced a 16 percent price increase on all food items, and a ten percent price increase on everything else.
Economic challenges in the real world are very much evident here as well, but seeking a higher paying job is not an option for prisoners. Over 800 prisoners here – almost one third of the prison population – is unemployed on “no job available” status. Despite the bleak economic downturn, boredom still moves younger prisoners more than hunger does. They will scrape and save, and ignore the growling in their stomachs, to some day purchase a small 11-inch flat screen television sold in the commissary to fend off boredom and connect them with the outside world.
Yesterday, I saw a young man walking through the snow to the prison “chow hall” wearing nothing but thin rubber slippers – the footwear given to prisoners who have nothing else. I asked him if that was all he had to wear, and he said, “I’m saving for a TV.” Basic cable is paid for with the profits from selling food to prisoners. It costs taxpayers nothing, and without it most prisons would have to double or triple their staffs to keep order.
Prisoners have no access to paid programming and, sadly, no access to EWTN either. I do miss it, and other Catholics are always asking me what we can do to receive it. The local Concord Comcast system dropped EWTN from its basic cable a few years ago.
BLUE BLOODS TOUCH FALLING SKIES
Beyond Downton Abbey, the prison population seems to like the same TV shows you do. “Blue Bloods” is very popular, and I watch it as well. Tom Selleck presides over a devout Catholic family of police officers, and over the NYPD as its Commissioner, a job once held by his own father. This show puts crime and corruption in perspective, and I think it’s a good sign that prisoners like it.
They also like “Touch,” the new show with “24′s” Keifer Sutherland in a role very much unlike Jack Bauer. He plays the father of an autistic child with whom he learns to communicate using math. The boy’s skills in math are eerie and strange, revealing an inner world where all events are mathematically connected and even mathematically predicted. “Touch” is relatively new, but its premise is intriguing. After its highly acclaimed premier, it will now keep us waiting until March to continue. It’s hard to put aside Jack Bauer, however. I keep expecting this guy to nail a few terrorists in his day job.
“Falling Skies” is also a current favorite, and one of mine as well. Its post-apocalyptic setting is bleak as all society breaks down after an alien invasion of Earth. A remnant of humans, led to great effect by cast members Noah Wylie and Will Patton, emphasize the preservation of basic values such as family, unity, and loyalty in their struggle to survive and reclaim civilization in the new Dark Ages.
Of course, if you read my post, “E.T. and The Fermi Paradox: Are We Alone in the Cosmos?” then you know where I stand on alien invasions. This show’s message is more than that, however, and it isn’t lost on anyone here. If we want to preserve our civilization, it must begin with restoring families and family values. The aliens who have conquered us are a metaphor for the last five decades of social restructuring and spiritual deprivation, and too often by judicial fiat.
I have one more confession to make. I follow AMC’s all-too-gory “The Walking Dead,” which is a big hit in prison and out there as well. I wasn’t even going to bring it up in this post until I saw a recent Our Sunday Visitor article by David DiCerto that analyzes it (“A Catholic examination of zombies,” January 22,2012).
Beyond the news, and a few History Channel excursions, my television consumption is about six hours per week. I’m always open to suggestions, however. If there’s something you really like on TV, I’d love to hear about it.
BACK TO DOWNTON ABBEY
Attention Deficit Disorder is epidemic in prison. For most prisoners, if something doesn’t blow up in the first five minutes of every TV show, it’s boring. So far, I have found only two other prisoners who watch Downton Abbey each week. Most just roll their eyes when I tell them it’s a British show and the current Masterpiece Classic on PBS. There are other British shows I like as well. Such as MI5 (Spooks in the UK) which re-runs on PBS now and then.
Downton Abbey is addictive, however. Even before reading any of the show’s critical acclaim, I just happened to stumble across a PBS re-run of the first episode of this Masterpiece Classic one December night. I tuned in just as Lord Grantham discovered that his only male heir was among the victims aboard the Titanic whose sinking was the headline in that day’s newspaper.
I was instantly hooked. History is itself one of the principal characters. Since then, I’ve been absorbed in the drama and intrigue of Downton Abbey’s Upstairs/Downstairs denizens at the outbreak of the First World War. In my humble opinion, the writers, cast, and production crew of Downton Abbey deserve every one of the six Emmy Awards earned in the show’s first season, and all the vast critical acclaim the show receives in its scores of glowing reviews.
And even if Maggie Smith won my heart as the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey, and has me snorting in laughter each week, she is still not what I would call the anchor of this first rate production. It isn’t even Lord Grantham himself, played to great effect by actor, Hugh Bonneville. From my perspective, Carson the Butler steals the show, and is the essential link between the drama of the nobility upstairs and the drama of the servants downstairs. Carson, played by actor, Jim Carter, is one of television’s most endearing characters. Despite having a past of his own, he is the very model of self-respect.
Downton Abbey depicts a time when there are no televisions and no computers. The winds of war are sweeping in to change everything. Electricity is making its way into Downton Abbey’s cavernous rooms, and you must not miss the scene of Carson the Butler practicing to use the dreaded new addition to his household: the telephone. He despises it, suspects it, and even fears its impact. He has no idea!
I discovered Downton Abbey too late to make it one of my “Hits and Misses of 2011.” But at the very least, you owe it to yourselves to catch the Dowager Countess’s first encounter with a swivel chair. It transported me out of prison, made me laugh out loud, and made the entire first season of Downton Abbey the huge hit it was.
(Next week on These Stone Walls: a guest post by Spero News columnist, Ryan A. MacDonald, with important news for TSW readers.)