My children have found me out.
Home for the holidays, they couldn’t help but observe their typically literate, uber responsible mother frequently sneaking away from yuletide activities to engage in binge-watching on her laptop.
And not just any binge, but the happiest, sappiest series on Netflix, “When Calls the Heart,” about a perfect little Canadian frontier town where residents know each other by name, welcome all newcomers, cure diseases without antibiotics since antibiotics haven’t been invented yet and even forgive the villainous mayor.
While hipper viewers, including my millennial children, continue to gather around the darker, edgier “Narcos,” “Black Mirror,” even “Stranger Things,” suddenly I’m in deep with a school teacher born in 1890 and the handsome Canadian Mountie she’s dated for three years and never so much as French-kissed.
“Mom, you know this kind of utopia isn’t possible,” said Chris, the eldest of my children and a serious-minded scholar with a master’s degree with whom I often discuss social politics. “Of course everybody’s kind and perfect on that show: That’s because nobody has to encounter any structural problems in the society. And please don’t tell me you like it because it was a simpler time. It wasn’t a simpler time. People died of cholera.”
Always with the cholera. It’s the same argument my friend uses when I tell her I’d rather live be Laura Ingalls Wilder than Hillary Clinton. And yet I do not watch a show like this to romanticize a time when people not only died young of a multitude of diseases, but when whole factions of society, including women, were oppressed.
I watch to recall civility.
A show like this offers a steady flow of thoughtful human interaction, particularly abundant in an era when people know nothing of the ugly debate of the hour on Facebook and everything about building community.
I’m not saying conflict never happens in “When Calls the Heart,” its very title bespeaking poetry read aloud in a lilac garden. Conflict must always be present in story, I learned in creative-writing classes. But the point of the show is not scary humans engaged 24-7 in the dark night of the soul, their lives laced with such chaos, special effects and scary mood music you can’t think past your PTSD-triggered heart rate or your fingers hiding your eyes. The point of this show, which apparently is gaining in popularity and was developed by no less than Michael Landon, Jr., is personal character, as presents in relationship, as presents in the building of community. It is the stuff of human nature we in this self-proclaimed era of social isolation yearn to reclaim as priorities but have forgotten how.
“Yeah, but Mom, won’t this show just lead you to feel disappointed?” Chris pushed. “You can’t expect the current world to operate like this.”
Oh, but can’t I?
It’s how I mothered. Character above all is what I sought to instill in my children, who over the years won their share of academic and achievement awards. But it was when they got awards for character that I rested easy on my pillow. It’s where I put my focus. Loving self and other, being able to look at oneself in the mirror, taking responsibility for one’s actions, accepting consequences — the stuff of character always overrode abject competition, arguing for the win and duels to the death.
“I can’t expect all of society to be in harmony,” I said to Chris. “But I can work on my piece of it and drop it in where I can.”
Everybody I know is racing to be a better person, especially as we leave the chaos of 2017 and start fresh anew. The noise on the racetrack, meanwhile, is loud. We struggle to break through the cacophony to even find the starting block.
I watch this show because it is a window in. Witnessing how the genteel female school teacher stands up with courage and restraint to the powerful male railroad tycoon when she needs financial help with school supplies is a lesson in humanity, humility and real power, as is seeing the whole of a community come together after a mining accident kills several dozen of the men in town.
I watch this show over the cool, edgy shows — even though that would apparently make me more cool and edgy — because I don’t like the effect those other shows have on my heart rate in the moment and my nightmare quotient later. We are what we consume. And I would rather have a kind-but-strong school teacher under my skin than drug lords, killers and Kevin Spacey.
My children may be coming around to this a little, as they crawled in with me the day after Christmas to watch the continuing courtship of Jack and Elizabeth, which is the heart of “When Calls the Heart,” nearing the end of this latest fourth season.
There was some groaning over the sappy language and the sappy looks the characters give each other.
But at some point, Chris, who lives in the competitive metropolis of D.C., where the order of the day is not what you know, but how big your phone is, said, “You know, I could see watching this. There’s something comforting about it.”
Even the best eye-roller in the family, 20-year-old Benjie who slipped off to bed before the season ended, wanted to know the next morning if Jack had proposed to Elizabeth.
The thing is, I think he genuinely cared to know.