This post started as a note in my journal: one of those things that starts crawling out from your head while you’re in the shower, like a worm on the sidewalk in the rain. I meant to write it before the Oscars, because that makes it seem topical rather than tangential.
Every year, Husband and I make of game of trying to get through all the Oscar nominees. Usually, some of the films we saw earlier in the year of our accord. These, ultimately and often, end up being my favourites. And, praise be to me, the Academy’s favourites, too. Of the last seven years, the only two “Best Pictures” I didn’t see in theatre way before hand were The Hurt Locker (wasn’t playing nearby) and The King’s Speech (meh).
My husband knows he married a Harry Potter enthusiast. And he, himself, long ago admitted that he once-upon-a-time had been something of a Star Trek fan. “When I was a kid,” he said with emphasis, as if awaiting judgment. But what judgment was I to pass? I was well into my twenties when I spent an entire semester solely on Harry Potter and class ideology. If the internet age has given anything to the western world, it’s the ability to admit to being a fan of Star Trek without fear of wedgies, swirlies or a state of general social outcast-ery.
Then it happened, by complete accident, that Husband had just begun reading the Harry Potter series when I noticed Star Trek: The Next Generation appeared on Netflix. Whether it was a new acquisition or whether it had been there all along, only to magically reveal itself when I truly needed it, I will never know. But alas: I started watching.
For such a critically acclaimed show, Downton Abbey is pretty crap. What are the problems with it? Those frequently cited include: contrived, formulaic, elitist, and cloying. But others? I think the fact that it is so highly rated is what makes this almost unbearable. Were this show just considered so-so, I’d be fine with it. It would be a guilty pleasure, even. But I can’t handle the idea of everyone thinking it so wonderful. It’s just… not. So what about it frustrates me so badly? In short: it is clichéd and nostalgic to a fault.
There is nothing original about it. I’ve actually laughed out loud at the absurdity of many of its plots and dialogue. Jarring anachronistic speech aside, it falls back on convention so readily I genuinely want to believe it is a satire. But it’s not. Its characters are two-dimensional, either white-hat types or moustache-twirling villains. Its period setting does nothing to make itself relevant; one just gushes at the fancy dresses and swoons over the romance of a time and place that never really existed.
As for the nostalgia, it is naive to think that simply by making class visible, Downton Abbey is criticizing the class system. IT IS NOT. If anything, it upholds it. It casts it like a beacon, a museum piece of a bygone era, something to cherish and admire. Where something like Mad Men functions as a microscope, Downton is a pedestal.
Shows like Mad Men are successful because play on our fondness for the romanticized past by subverting your expectations. The unexpected adherence to the “realism” of the times is what provides the critical eye; it underlines what is wrong with those attitudes. For instance, in Mad Men, sexism and racism are dealt with without the filter of modern-day moralizing. This leads us to examine those issues as they really were and how those issues still exist in a contemporary context. Contrarily, by anachronistically altering the world view of that era in order to preserve our modern values, shows like Downton Abbey actually cover up the issues.
Actually, it doesn’t just cover them up, it varnishes them with the thick gloss of tradition. Not tradition in a historical sense, but in a storytelling sense. For instance, one of the worst moments in the show is when Maggie Smith’s character (one of the Lady Granthams), reads out Mr. Moseley’s name as winner of the rose competition in the village despite the judges pandering to her social status and unjustly awarding her the prize. Such a cliché in the worst possible sense. Beyond the laziness of that “character building” device, all this does theme- and story-wise is acknowledge that class differences existed back in 1914. Which we all know anyway.
But, hey, the show seems to suggest, it wasn’t all that bad. The upper classes were benevolent rulers who treated their servants like beloved members of the family. And they were just so gosh-darned nice. As Mary points out, Lord and Lady Grantham share a bed, which is weird for the day. Their marriage of convenience turned into one of love and respect. So apparently, arranged marriages are all sunshine and roses, too.
The show started with potential here to work out class issues, especially with Bates and Lord Grantham being war buddies, but it has failed to live up to its promise by engaging in ridiculous soap opera plots. The moment it all turned is when Lady Mary appeared in Anna’s room, telling her that what’s-his-face-the-Turkish-guy, died. His name is something stupid, isn’t it? I can’t remember, he just seems to be The Hot Turkish Guy. A plot point like this sudden, inconvenient death (while functioning as a way to not only move the action forward but to push it off a fucking cliff) has failed to pull itself out of its own absurdity.
And the absurdity continues. Now I’m all for characters having interesting pasts and (as it looks like the upper class characters don’t have much of a past at all) this task will fall to the servants of Downton. But, seriously, do you have to do it in such a hackneyed way? Do you really have to go the long-lost lover come back for some middle-aged romance? The “I used to be a drunk and a thief but I’m a nice guy now” trope? Two evil servants who wants to fuck up some shit with no apparent motivation other than they were passed over for promotion? The secret VAUDEVILLE PERFORMER? HONESTLY?
I’ll give you some credit, Downton Abbey. Beginning the show with the sinking of the Titanic was interesting. Perhaps even inspired. However, a historical touchstone that moved the entire country and shook the foundations of the household so much as to set the entire story into motion should not come to be the most subtle plot point in the series.
I also admire the introduction of the middle classes into a common trope usually focused on only the upstairs/downstairs dynamic. At first it seemed like a marker of increasing complexity, as if to note Hey, it’s the twentieth century. Class dynamics in Britain are not gone, they just splintered into shades of grey. But alas, Downton Abbey, you’re all about the black and white.
The complexities of the class system are inherently intriguing. (Before you claim that I am just going all Marx on this show, class is the most explicit theme Julian Fellowes is working with here.) But the class discrepancies have been battered out into doldrums of a soap opera, relying so much as it does on cliché. Where do I even begin? Lady Sybil’s rapid campaigns for suffrage? The bile-ridden banter between the upper class and middle class matrons? How about the Disney-level nuances given to the supporting characters? The humble gardener wringing his hat in his hands? Ditzy Daisy the kitchen maid? The crotchety overweight cook? The chauffeur who is both IRISH and a COMMUNIST? (Oh my god, he wants to read! He must be a Communist!)
That aside, Lady Grantham’s “Americanness” and her vast fortune (that somehow saved the estate) at first seemed like it would raise intriguing insights into Anglo-American relations and financial interdependence. But all it really did was loudly proclaim: “This is great, isn’t it?! This whole class thing. Shame if something were to happen to it.” You see, Matthew Crawley, the new heir to the estate is just so… middle class.
But we like Matthew. As does Lord Grantham and Mary (Albeit her like of Matthew is rather more complicated. Perhaps the only marginally complicated thing in the whole show.) Even though Matthew is likeable, we are still led to lament the idea that the middle class shall one day in inherit the titles and wealth of the landed gentry. *Cue snooty guffaw.*
We are supposed to think that it is a crying, fucking shame that Mary will not inherit the estate. Even if Matthew was a total dick, our sympathies are drawn to the plight of the acidic Mary because the show explicitly tells us they should be. However, I feel no sympathy for Mary. Yet, Downton Abbey, you tell me I should. Why are no real qualms made as to whether Edith or Sybil should have a right to the estate? So it’s a gender thing, you say, not a class thing? It’s apparently unfair that Mary does not inherit because she’s a women, but it’s no worry that Edith and Sybil are shafted simply because they were born second and third? So, there’s no problem with this part of Inheritance Law.
Even though Lord Grantham says himself that he’s just a steward; the estate does not belong to him. By this (frankly odd) logic, are not then the servants (the ones who actually get their hands dirty in the maintenance of the estate) the caretakers? And why the hell does it matter who inherits just as long as they keep the building from crumbling to the ground? I can’t be the only one who thinks Mary would be appallingly bad at this, right? I wouldn’t trust her to keep a goldfish for the weekend, let alone take care of a whole fucking estate. And if she marries, does this not all go to her husband anyway?
Ugh. I’m exasperated just thinking about it. I mean, the show does hit the mark in some small moments, but it is by no means capable of inciting an intriguing premise. It’s essentially pap with the odd interesting idea. Apparently, that’s been enough for critics, audiences, and the Hollywood Foreign Press, but all that does is make the disappointment worse. The expectations were so high. But all it is is Emmerdale a hundred years ago.
Shannon and I are still watching Downton Abbey. I tried to think of why, but fell short of a way to explain myself. We started watching the show because it was so damned critically acclaimed, but then we discovered that it, well, kind of sucks.
So why were we still watching it? For reasons I’ve tried to explain, we realized that it is the best show for us to watch together. (Watching alone is just masochistic nonsense.) With the help of this handy Venn Diagram, I will try to get to the bottom of this.
(Also, this diagram is by no means a comprehensive list of all the shows we’ve indeed watched together. It barely scratches the surface, actually.)
(As a disclaimer, this is titled “Shows Shannon and Ashleigh Have Watched Together” not to exclude other Commune-ists, but simply because it was the two of us that have watched Downton Abbey, and, at Adam’s insistence, this blog needed more posts. Also, we’ve lived together the longest, so have thus watched the most shows together.)
I once heard someone describe Mad Men as the television equivalent of the “Great American Novel.” The “Great American Novel,” as a descriptor, carries with it sense of formality and scope. By definition, it is… well, defining.
What does it mean, then, when something like Mad Men has a far more expansive impact on the cultural landscape than your average contemporary novel? Are we really in, as some critics might claim, a golden age of television? Or does television just reach a broader audience than literature?