the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Downton Abbey

Down and Out-ton

I worked in the financial services industry for a few years. I once asked career advice from a mentor who told me: “Dress British, Think Yiddish”. The popular TV show Downton Abbey certainly confirms the the former as it’s wonderful to watch early 20th century aristocrats strut their stuff. In looking at the second part of the phrase, which touches on an ugly racial stereotype, it is clear that Britishness somehow fails to mesh with financial success.  The show also affirms this as Downton Abbey is perpetually short on native “scratch”. In fact the show was inspired by historical migration of wealthy American heiress‘ flocking to the well-healed English blue bloods lacking in green.  Even back then the rising American merchant class felt there was value in “dressing” British.  Lord Grantham, the patriarch, can be relied on to be exceedingly just and appropriate. He can hire a butler, pick the right claret and tell you the difference between Boodle’s and Brooks’s. You would not trust him to purchase a second hand car, be deposed by a clever lawyer or pick stocks. Unfortunately he undertakes the second action in Season two with the result that his valet, a trusted old army friend whom he was trying to aid, being sent to death row.  Season three opens with his accountant explaining that the investment he made, which he was advised against, has obliterated his wife’s fortune. Oops.

There is an expression in television called “jumping the shark” which marks the moment the creative energy of the show vanishes and the writers resort to over-sized gimmicks to retain the audience. The origins of the term stem from an episode of “Happy Days” where the motor cycle riding, tough-talking, Fonzie turns to water-skiing and leaps over a live shark in order to prove his bravery. It is interesting to note that the show continued on for another FIVE seasons. Downton’s “jump” occurred somewhere in the second season. It was probably the moment where the paralyzed heir suddenly starts walking in a feat worthy of Wile E. Coyote in a "Road Runner" cartoon. Then again it could have been when the heir’s girlfriend quickly dies of a broken heart after seeing him kissing his cousin opening the way for him to keep Downton “in the family”. Season three opens with more “jumps”. The heir is suddenly inheriting a huge fortune from dead fiancee, conveniently the rightful heir is “missing” in India; at the same time Lord Grantham gets the news of his financial demise. This reminded me of an episode of season two when a badly burned solider appears with a story of having swam off a sinking ocean liner and landing in Canada with amnesia. He joins the army and is sent back to Europe. His new wounds make him remember that he is actually the rightful heir to Downton Abbey. His facial disfigurement makes the claim impossible to substantiate. Don’t worry no one on the show believed it either. Except the “ugly” middle sister who is treated with more misogynistic scorn than the daughter on “Family Guy”.  He left in a huff. Maybe one of the head writers realized what was going on and pulled him before all credulity had vanished from the Downton Universe.

What could have created the strange turn of events chez Grantham? The first season was palatable PBS fluff.  The sin of being caught watching TV can always be ameliorated by decent English actors and few commercials.  You’re experiencing Lord Grantham and not Peter Griffin - although the latter is equally incompetent if not more clever.  Then again it is more proof of the misconception that laughing at an historical reference in a Tom Stoppard play is more edifying than a prat-fall in “The Producers”. Season One at Downton Abbey played to one of the lesser angels of our American nature - our worship of English Aristocracy despite the fact that they behave as badly as their distant American cousins on the “Jersey Shore”. Overall the writing was passable and Maggie Smith was extraordinary.  The show revolves around her eye-ball rolling one-liners such as: “What is a ‘weekend’?” In her character there is a sense of “what might have been” had the writers been up to the task.

It is a challenge making the ruling class sympathetic; especially at a time when there were no social safety nets and women and minorities were less than full citizens. Nevertheless there have been artists with the ability. The key lies in creating characters who have the strength of design to break out of the low earth orbit of “plot”. The three Crawley sisters journey is a tedious climb compared to Jane Austen’s brood in “Pride and Prejudice”.  The Downton Abbey crowd disappears outside their petty struggles. One might dream of having dinner with Isabel Archer before she takes her tour of Europe in “Portrait of a Lady.”  It is impossible to imagine the same meal with the future Countess Grantham without it being part of court ordered community service.  It might seem unfair to match the writers of a television mini-series with great novelists but Maggie Smith liveliness indicates the bar could have been raised.  The end result might not have been “House of Mirth”, but it would be a world away from  “As Downton Turns”.

One of the ironies for television writers is: nothing destroys like success. It is an all consuming medium which requires exponentially larger quantities of material for ever growing number of viewers.  It is hard to imagine the Downton team being prepared for the frenzy. One senses the fun and creativity being swallowed in a mob from “Day of the Locusts”. The selfless earnest goodness of Lord Grantham, Mr. Bates, Matthew Crawley and Mr. Carson becomes cloyingly masochistic in season two. By season three one wishes, dramatically speaking, that Mr. Bates had killed his first wife; ditto for Matthew pocketing his dead fiancee's fortune and saying, “well she certainly can’t use it”. This would have made the first two hours of the new installment worth enduring. Maybe in addition Lord Grantham could be overwhelmed by Matthew’s purity and threaten violence: “I need a cheque for a million sterling or you won’t see your mother again”. The fallout might have given a chance for Mr. Carson to return to singing in dance halls instead of ending his days covered in mildew in Downton’s wine cellar. In short the audience has had enough of Prince William rescuing people in the North Sea and craves more of Prince Harry in Vegas. The writers feel the need to imbue this show’s Hal, the Irish chauffeur, with super-human social concerns.  This young man dreams of being a journalist and righting the never-ending oppression of Ireland. What if he simply wanted to party in South Beach? There is historical precedent - just ask the late Princess Grace about Philip Junot. Once again the never-ending onslaught of treacle might have been stemmed if the writers’ had had time to weather the wave of expectations. They might have been praying for a couple of more episodes - instead it’s a minimum of two years worth of seasons plus holiday specials. At the moment of this show’s being green-lighted the creative team could never have imagined a New Yorker paying $20,000 to go on a date with the actor who plays Matthew.

No doubt, metaphorically speaking, the dog caught the bus. The creative team ran out of gas and simply re-cycled the goodness or the male characters, the social dramas of the female characters and the bi-polar good/bad divide in the downstairs crowd. You see there are “good” servants (everyone that Mr. Carson approves of) and “bad servants (the two that continually hoodwink Countess Grantham). There are no bad people upstairs - merely well-meaning men and a purgatory of oppressed women. Once again Maggie Smith escapes the heaven/hell dichotomy and presents as the only genuine human on the show - at least the only one you’d want to hang with.... maybe the exception is Season three’s clever addition of Shirley MacLaine. I can imagine the writers suddenly seeing “Auntie Mame” on cable and screaming: “THAT’S IT! WE NEED ONE OF THOSE”. They even included a scene of her singing. Let’s hope they don’t try to reprise the film “High Society”. Suddenly we might see an appearance of Cee Low Green in some garish 1940s zoot-suit. One can already script everyone’s reactions: Carson and Lord Grantham will be appalled but grow to like him; Matthew’s mother will think it’s wonderful; the old cook and her sidekick will hysterically object to cooking corn on the cob; the Crawley sisters will see how their potential husbands’ react; the two evil servants will try to tear his clothes; the others will cheer him on; Anna Smith will dutifully make the grim pilgrimage to Mr. Bates in prison and tell him of the wild and wacky visit - they will embrace after looking longingly into eachother’s eyes - cue tears.

The strategy going forward: Have the mute button pushed until Maggie Smith or Shirley MacLain’s lips are moving. Otherwise enjoy the costumes and scenery. Or better yet see if “Rules of the Game” is available on Netflix.

No comments: