Nothing is more off-putting than moral certitude. What we used to know for sure about right and wrong has been reduced to a handful of proscriptives—ones related to social ills, mostly. The exception to this, as in all things, is Oprah Winfrey, who closes each issue of her magazine with a column written by herself audaciously entitled, “What I Know for Sure.” In the latest issue of O: The Oprah Magazine Oprah allows another scrap of certainty to fall from her generous table, which in this case has to do with recently decluttering her closet. She lets us in on her secret: the efficiency gained by maintaining an orderly closet allows her to spend more time maintaining her soul.
Well said, Oprah. In light of the current cultural climate, it is gutsy of her to connect the well-ordered material world with the well-ordered spiritual one—and with a sense of absolute certainty, no less. Maybe her next traveling show should be called Of Closets and Souls. Such a show would clash with the rest of the pop culture spectrum, a field allergic to moral pronouncements about the unseen. Even PBS, the venerable public institution making radio and TV programming available to the masses, is not immune to this nervous restraint.
Arguably the most storied franchise on the PBS network is the Masterpiece series, which has been airing on Sunday nights in culturally aspirational households since 1971. After going through a few different iterations, Masterpiece is now divided into Masterpiece Classic, which consists of period dramas—usually adaptations of classic works of literature—and Masterpiece Mystery, which features series built around the legendary skills of the British when it comes to killing people and figuring out who is doing the killing. Masterpiece Contemporary also exists, which is a fine thing, especially since it was there that the stone cold brilliance in Benedict Cumberbatch’s visage first came to our attention.
Sydney Chambers is a priest who simmers in a deep pool of crippling regret, frustrated love, and sustaining faith in equal measure.Watching Masterpiece is like experiencing books without having to slog through words on page or screen (both have their place, just not on Sunday, when it’s my last shot at a reprieve before the start of another week of my first-world drudgery). Masterpiece is a compromise: I will be entertained while simultaneously being challenged to reflect on the human condition in an atmosphere of spectacular production values.
This scenario used to be a win-win, but I’ve noticed a pattern in watching Masterpiece over the last few years. In newer Masterpiece Classic series—such as post-Season 1 Downton Abbey, Mr. Selfridge, and The Paradise—the plot spirals downward or spins in circles, characters only serve as ciphers for their own gender, race or social status; their interior lives are nonexistent. What these shows have in common (other than the strange fact that two of them are period dramas with parallel plot lines about early 20th-century British department stores starring small bearded men) is that they don’t really have anything to say, an assertion I make in an earlier piece.
On the other hand, the newly-produced Masterpiece Mystery series provides the opposite experience: the characters are subtle, caught a thicket of motivations and desires, the plot lines are complex, the tension convincing and revelatory. These features are showcased in Grantchester, the Masterpiece Mystery series that just ended its first season. Grantchester is about a young Anglican vicar in the 1950s, Sydney Chambers (James Norton), who pastors a rural parish and manages to get caught up in solving murders—the tidy number of one per episode—alongside a local policeman. He also suffers from PTSD, drinks too much, gets in fisticuffs, and has problems with women of various sorts.The setup sounds over the top, and it is, yet the show is layered and sensitive and unafraid to venture into all sorts of dangerous territory, from matters of race and class to male friendship, war, drug addiction, repressed homosexuality and dying babies. Not to mention all the talk of God, death, and the difficult work of Sydney Chamber’s vocation.
Moral quandaries abound, and Sydney is not afraid to venture into the world, getting stuck in one quagmire or another, because he is fully human, which includes being spiritual—dealing with the part of ourselves that is a counterpart to the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. This is a priest who simmers in a deep pool of crippling regret, frustrated love, and sustaining faith in equal measure, a priest who prefers whiskey to sherry, the presumed drink of most vicars. This turns into an ongoing joke throughout the series that manages to convey the subtle, or not so subtle, sense that men of the cloth are not quite men at all, not up to a stiff drink, suitable only for tea time, sips of sherry, and sprinkling water on a baby’s forehead in one sort of ritual or another.
With its undercurrent of tension between our interior and exterior selves, our desire to be good people who sometimes wants to do bad things, Grantchester is a show for grown-ups. This becomes especially apparent when it is placed alongside the dollhouse delights of its Masterpiece Classic network siblings.
The Paradise, Mr. Selfridge, and Downton Abbey can match any societal ill that shows up on Grantchester, plot point for plot point. Yet for all this venturing into deep social waters, these shows never manage to be much more than the parts of their sum. The moral dilemmas are limited to whether or not one’s actions will be accepted by the other characters milling aimlessly about—not whether or not these actions are right.
Mysteries may be considered the slighter genre when it comes to storytelling, yet Grantchester and its Masterpiece Mystery predecessors such as Sherlock don’t shrink from offering weighty moral judgments. And while Grantchester may be heavy on morals, it remains light on moralizing. Nobody watches TV (even PBS) for a lecture, and Grantchester delivers in this respect, managing to maintain its balance while offering a good/bad binary. The show never loses sight of the humanity of its characters; murderers are people too.
Which brings us to the reason for the moral clarity found in the latest Masterpiece Mystery series. In these shows, people are murdered. And a murder means that someone else, no matter how understandable the motive, did a very bad thing by killing another person. This framework allows the storytelling to take place at a higher level, even in Sherlock, which was packed with gimmicks. Nuance abounded in that particular series, even in the middle of plot twists, red herrings, and overwrought unconventional narrative techniques. It’s unsettling to think that the bar has to be set at murder in order to achieve moral clarity, that, short of homicide, we refuse to recognize a character’s choices as bad.
As someone who loves watching British actors in period dress sitting in drawing rooms all over England, I want Masterpiece Classic to offer its viewers more, maybe take a cue from its cross-genre pals over on the Masterpiece Mystery side of the programming divide.
If the Masterpiece Classic producers can’t figure out how to address the soulful side of the human experience on their own, maybe American viewers can help. In our long-standing tradition of meddling, we can offer to send Oprah over to lend a hand. Oprah, her OWN acronym ready to hand, could join the production team at Masterpiece. She has extensive experience filming period dramas, is not afraid to make people cry, and best of all, understands that all the drama that takes place in our domestic lives—from murder to things far more mundane, like a well-ordered bedroom closet—has as much to do with our souls as anything else. And, as she would say, this she knows for sure.