Tag Archives: Downton Abbey

“Downton Abbey” and “Doc Martin”: Two Very Different Finales

This weekend I watched two very different season finales, on two very different British imports: “Downton Abbey” and “Doc Martin”.  My British readers have already long-since seen both; for my American readers who may not have caught them yet, I promise no serious spoilers.  However, you may still want to bookmark and return to this piece after you have seen these episodes, if indeed you plan to do so.

Now I know, I know, after the scathing piece I wrote regarding happened to Anna early on in this season of “Downton Abbey”, I am clearly a hypocrite for getting drawn back into it again.  Unfortunately “Downton” at times is rather like a bag of Fritos.  It can be addictive, salty, and pleasurable, but it has little nutritional value.  Plus, you really aren’t supposed to eat it all in one sitting, unless you have a morbid desire to experience heartburn and indigestion.

In the end it turned out that the “Downton Abbey” finale was just as bad as inhaling an entire bag of corn chips.  Remember at the end of Season 2, when Matthew finally proposed? Or at the end of Season 3, when he bit the big one? The highlight of the Season 4 finale was two characters wading in the sea at Brighton, hand in hand.  In fact, that pairing was trending last night on Twitter across the U.S., probably because it was the only item of note in an otherwise dull finale.

We all know that “Downton Abbey” is little more than a soap opera masquerading as a costume drama, given its ridiculous plot devices and wincingly bad historical anachronisms.  However I did come back to it even after what I had written previously, for the simple reason that there is so little of any merit on television.  Should I watch a 256th version of a show about cops tracking serial killers who employ particularly gruesome methods of torture?  Or should watch a supposedly funny show about a group of confused people having no moral center beyond the old, “if it feels right to you then it must be right”?  There are many things wrong with “Downton”, but there are moments when one is reminded that there is in fact a moral center to the universe, even if popular culture elsewhere would have you believe that the only true Polaris to human existence is self-worship.

Moreover, one keeps coming back to “Downton Abbey” because, let’s face it: it looks great.  The cars, the homes, the clothes, everything is just wonderful eye candy if you appreciate beautiful things.  Try flipping through the channels some evening, and pause to consider, visually, what you are looking at, and ask yourself how aesthetically pleasing it truly is.  How much ugliness can we look at, night after night, in our entertainments and not have it affect us in some way?  That is not necessarily a reason for “Downton” to survive as a series, of course, but when considering the viewing alternatives, it was overall a far better choice to make.

I also caught the finale of Season 6 of “Doc Martin”, which although well-liked, has never been a cultural phenomenon in the way “Downton Abbey” has been over on this side of the pond.  I have never been an unreserved fan of the show, finding some of the characters rather repetitive and twee, although it is generally entertaining and does its job well.  For once you get into it, there are enough good performances – particularly Martin Clunes, Caroline Catz, and Eileen Atkins – to keep you interested.

Unlike the “Downton Abbey” finale, there was serious drama at the conclusion of “Doc Martin” this season.  However there was also one of those rare moments when one sees two good actors doing a superb job addressing serious matters that come up in the lives of human beings, wherever they happen to sit on the social scale.  For this reason, “Doc Martin” actually had something better and more relatable to say, despite “Downton” trying to hit all the buttons of lust, murder, rape, and so on.  And of course like “Downton”, “Doc Martin” is also beautiful to look at, albeit for very different reasons, thanks to the magnificent Cornish coast.

For the finale of “Doc Martin”, a conflict between Martin and Louisa comes to a head, which at first I must confess I found incredibly irritating.  Louisa knew what Martin was like, I was thinking to myself, and she married him anyway: she made her bed, now she must lie in it.  Yet seemingly within weeks of their wedding, she tires of the trials of living real married life, where all is not sunshine and rainbows.

Interestingly, in the resolution of this crisis it is the taciturn Martin who, with his methodical nature, proves to have a much better grasp of what the term “marriage” actually entails than does the romantic and breezy Louisa.  It is Martin who realizes what his duties are, and that in order for things to get better, he is going to have to change, and to work with her together on their marriage.  As someone who has always been painfully shy and withdrawn after years of abuse at the hands of his parents, for Martin to stop trying to shield himself is a major triumph.  When he does so, at the end of this season, the man of principle within is still there, it is not merely a facade.

In sum, then, both these finales have their high and low points (and the reader is certainly welcome to disagree with my thoughts on each by leaving comments below.)  Both are lovely to look at it, albeit for different reasons.  And both provide the benefit of making you think, rather than just sitting back and allowing your brain to atrophy.  Given these factors, you could do far worse than to add them to your television viewing.

Caroline Catz and Martin Clunes in "Doc Martin"

Caroline Catz and Martin Clunes in “Doc Martin”

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The Downfall of “Downton Abbey”

[SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen Season 4, Episode 2 of "Downton Abbey", which was shown last evening on PBS in America, and intend to watch it, you may wish to bookmark this post and read it later.]

There comes a point in the life of a television series where you have to ask yourself, “Why am I bothering?”  Americans often refer to said moment as “jumping the shark”, the origins of which you can learn here.  One can get into lively, often heated debates as to when beloved television shows started to go down the tubes.  For example, did “The Cosby Show” begin its decline when Denise returned home with her step-daughter Olivia, or when Cousin Pam came to live with the Huxtables?  Did “Roseanne” go off the rails when Darlene became a goth, or when Becky eloped with Mark? For me, last night was the definitive moment when “Downton Abbey” strapped on the water skis, and flew off into oblivion.

The season premiere of “Downton Abbey” a week ago here in the U.S. was hyped considerably on PBS, the American network which screens it after it has been shown in Britain, in the weeks leading up to its showing.  In fact the network commissioned a retrospective on the first three seasons of the program, with a few clips from the impending fourth season, tied into a fund-raising campaign.  The event was hosted by the well-known, Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon.

At the time, I wondered why an actress of such considerable standing in the film industry would have been asked to present such a thing.  I now suspect it was done because PBS had seen what was coming.  When executives at the network screened Season 4 of “Downton Abbey”, and realized that many Americans were going to sour on it, they further realized they had better get their wagons in a circle and start the pledge drive now, rather than wait for the inevitable fallout.

While the two-hour premiere last week was awful, in a saccharine sort of way, leaving me and many others wondering why we had bothered to tune in, for PBS it was a resounding success on the numbers.  “Downton Abbey” drew 10.2 million viewers that night, the highest for a season premiere in PBS history.  Although my British readers may not be particularly impressed by that figure, keep in mind that PBS in general does not have nearly as many regular viewers as do the American commercial networks, since many Americans view PBS as a predominantly leftist, elitist organization (and rightly so.)

However mediocre the premiere, I suspect that the aforementioned, preemptive “Downton Abbey” retrospective program, tied into a fundraising campaign for the network, was put together because the executives anticipated the reaction that I and others had last night to Episode 2.  Anna Bates – one of the decidedly admirable and decent characters on the show – was brutally raped down in the kitchens of the great house, while the rest of the household was upstairs, attending a concert.  Some of the comments I read on Twitter last night included various expressions of profanity (which I shall not reprint here); observations that the series was “a sincere disappointment”; and even a shocked “No, no, no #DowntonAbbey” from a prominent conservative commentator.

Regular readers will recall my initial aversion to “Downton Abbey” when it premiered on “Masterpiece” here in the U.S. several years ago.  Despite all its attention to detail, the fundamental problem has always been the unbelievability of the series.  No matter how often the creators and producers of the show talk about how many of the stories and incidents were drawn from real-life experiences, the collective Achilles’ heel of the program is the on-screen relationship between employer and employee.  While today a countess may choose to be close friends with her servants, or allow them to speak to her in a familiar fashion, such behavior is still unthinkable in some aristocratic houses – and would have been wildly inappropriate a century ago, when “Downton Abbey” is set.

Yet like others who rolled their eyes over the liberties the servants were taking with the family, and the family’s seeming inability to behave like titled aristocrats, by Season 2 I decided to suspend my disbelief because “Downton Abbey” was simply a good soap opera, rather than an accurate, historical reenactment or a great piece of literature.  Like in any melodrama, the twists and turns, the eavesdropping and intercepted letters, and the surgically-altered imposter evil twin princess locked in the boathouse with a bomb about to go off are what keep you hooked on such programs.  You try not to stop and think too much about the reasonable assertion, “This couldn’t possibly happen,” because you are being entertained.

Unfortunately, what happened to Anna Bates last evening was not only brutal and pointless, it completely destroyed the illusion of the show.  How the rape itself occurred, and how Anna and Mrs. Hughes each behaved subsequently, were all so utterly unbelievable, so completely out of character with these people whom we have come to know from the beginning of the series, that I was snapped out of a stately home in early Jazz-Age Britain and back into early 21st century America.  The whole thing would have been laughable, had not the action in question been so crude and so deadly serious.

I am told by several friends that there is good to come in Season 4 of the series, and that there is even a solid, pro-life message to boot. That is all very well, but I’m afraid the spell has been broken. I no longer care what happens to the characters on “Downton Abbey”, and that is fatal to the continuation of the series.  Without that element of fantasy to keep me and others who were as appalled by last night’s program as I was, hooked, I suspect that there will not be a Series 5.  Frankly, at this point there doesn’t deserve to be one.

Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) on "Downton Abbey"

Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) on “Downton Abbey”

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What Direction Britain?

Over the weekend while I watched what I knew was coming on the season finale “Downton Abbey” – and no, there will be no spoilers for those few of you who don’t know yet – I was struck by how a costume drama from the Mother County could so enthrall American audiences.  There has always been that so-called “special relationship” between Britain and America despite what they might term the unpleasantness of the Revolution and the War of 1812.  However I wonder how much of that affinity remains at present, or whether we are simply mutually basking in the reflected glow of something now past.

Watching as the current British Prime Minister stumbles his way along through one misguided policy after another, it is hard for an American conservative to fathom that Mr. Cameron happens to be the head of Britain’s Conservative Party.  As recently as the Thatcher, Major, and Blair years, there seemed to be a greater affinity between the two nations with respect to a number of policy issues, regardless of whether it was a Conservative or Labour government.  Yet increasingly under Gordon Brown and now under David Cameron, there is a sense that Britain is going irreversibly in one direction and America in another.

Others of course would argue that Britain is simply ahead of the curve, and that eventually here in the US we will end up something like the UK writ large.  One certainly hopes that this is not the case, and I say that as a life-long Anglophile who has had the good fortune to live in Britain twice.  Though once senses that the mutual values we held of how to achieve mutual prosperity seem to have been eroding rather dramatically.

When we look back to the first half of the previous century, such as the time in which the fictional Crawley family are operating, we notice that there was a healthy fusion of British belief in hard work with an American sense of getting the job done creatively.  British aristocrats married American money to save their houses, and British businessmen went into partnerships with American firms, recognizing that there were natural affinities and mutual needs that could be met through adaptation and change.  After all, what saves Downton Abbey financially is putting a middle-class young man in charge of things, once he gets the backing of his American mother-in-law to persuade her husband.  And lest we forget, like Ladies Mary, Edith, and Sybil Crawley, Sir Winston Churchill himself was half-American.

Yet it must be said that among the Britons whom I regularly interact with, as much as they may love their country, privately they recognize that there are not as many opportunities left for them there, and many of them want to move here.  They see fewer chances of really succeeding on merit in a country which has become so increasingly dependent on government subsidy, and merely surviving rather than thriving.  What Napoleon once referred to as a “nation of shopkeepers”, seems to be increasingly a “nation of victims”.

Now before any of us over on this side of the Atlantic start patting ourselves on the back, or contentedly saying to ourselves, “There but for the grace of God…”, we, too continue to see more and more dependence upon centralized government taking over even the most basic aspects of our lives.  Fortunately our federal system allows for a greater deal of fight-back than we see in Britain, though that requires eternal vigilance, and more often than not the use of the courts, as we see in the current fight over the present Administration’s HHS Mandate.

For all of our complaints about divided government in our unusual American system of government, there is something very good indeed about a weakened Executive Branch in particular.  Among other things, it makes it much harder for any one person or philosophy to absolutely dominate domestic policy.  Thus while he was able to pass Obamcare thanks to his party controlling both the White House and Congress, today Mr. Obama could huff and puff all he wants, but if he were to introduce a bill that Republicans could not support, it simply would not pass.

What the future holds we do not know.  We can be sure that it will be a less prosperous one for both nations, thanks to factors such as short-sighted budget policies more focused on present consumption than future growth, or promoting population control as a way to reign in costs while simultaneously gutting future benefits.  In the end one does not fear for America so much, since she changes regularly throughout her history, but one wonders what will become of dear old Blighty once it is little more than a cog in the European socialist machine.  And that is something which the British will have to answer for themselves.

Matthew

Cousin Matthew out for a spin on “Downton Abbey”

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The Curious Appeal of “Downton Abbey”

For my regular readers who have not seen the Season Two finale of “Downton Abbey” yet, do not worry: I will not be providing any spoilers in the following blog post. Nor am I going to expound upon why I find it ridiculous, which I did at the conclusion of Season One, as you can read here.   Instead, recognizing that the show seems to have struck a chord with many people, and is being referenced in everything from Ralph Lauren’s Fall/Winter 2012 collection which just walked the runway last week, to the popularity of YouTube tribute videos such as [please forgive the vulgarity] “Sh*t the Dowager Countess Says“, I want to ask the question: why is this decidedly old-fashioned type of British melodrama attracting such a significant audience here in America?

One school of thought can best be encapsulated in a conversation I had yesterday afternoon with an elderly gentleman in my neighborhood with whom I have had a nodding acquaintance for many years.  A New Englander by birth and education, he holds an Ivy League doctorate in cultural anthropology, speaks several difficult languages fluently, and has lived all over the world.  We discussed the convoluted plot lines and numerous anachronisms of the television series, and yet both wondered aloud at the fact that two reasonably educated fellows such as ourselves were still watching the thing, for some inexplicable reason.  “For me,” my learned if lefty friend concluded,”the truth is that ‘Downton Abbey’ is a lot like President Obama.  It’s bad, and I don’t believe it, but there’s no appealing alternative.”

While that might explain the attraction for some people, it certainly does not speak to everyone’s interest.  Since so much of popular dramatic evening television in this country at the present time is the worship of hyper-sexualized violence, “Downton Abbey” is something else entirely.  It is probably a relief for many to be able to watch a program that looks good and, while dealing with adult themes, exhibits at least some restraint in its portrayal of sex and violence, compared to other television shows which have captured the popular imagination of late.

Another possibility is the escapism of a more glamorous time, which becomes particularly engaging when economic and political times are hard.  The appeal of shows like “Pan-Am” or “Mad Men” in this country, for example, is in part due to a reflection back on when things seemed to be a bit more elegant and attractive than they are now.  It would be hard to imagine people becoming engaged in, for example, a soap opera set in the Dust Bowl during the Depression, though stranger things have happened.

However another explanation is something I raised at brunch after Sunday mass, in the company of a largish number of friends of both sexes: Could it be that “Downton Abbey” is the new “Desperate Housewives”? When the latter show premiered, I found it watchable because it was so surreal, and wicked in its send-up of soap opera clichés.  I actually enjoyed the first few episodes quite a bit, until Oprah Winfrey picked up on the show and decided to give it her imprimatur; that, in turn, made it too popular and I stopped watching it.  However it is interesting that both series share a certain kind of fantastical unbelievability rooted in realism: “Desperate Housewives” was set in contemporary American suburbia, of course, and “Downton Abbey” in Edwardian English manor life, and yet neither of their universes seems entirely plausible, no matter how much attention to detail is put in by the filmmakers.

Like “Desperate Housewives”, the female characters on “Downton Abbey” are all beautiful, highly complex women from different socio-economic classes, who often find themselves struggling to assert ideas of their own purpose in life, or to follow their dreams of forbidden romance.  There are in both series the same cartoon-like characters who are marked out as black-and-white evil, without nuance; they occasionally do a good turn for someone else, but inevitably they do not learn from their experiences, and go back to being villains.  And just like on “Desperate Housewives”, the campy-slapstick factors in “Downton Abbey” are sometimes rather high, despite the serious tones and the furrowing of brows.

That being said, I did wonder aloud in conversation with the ladies at the table whether “Downton Abbey” is what the old Hollywood movie moguls used to call a “women’s picture”.  While the term would be viewed in some quarters as a misogynistic categorization today, it really is no different from the term “chick flick”, though of course cultural morays have changed rather dramatically in the transition.  A film or a novel where the men are not really particularly complicated characters, but the women all go through very complicated storyline arcs, will naturally appeal more to women than to men, even if men can enjoy them.  Indeed, the last British television series to make a big splash on these shores, “Cranford”, was an almost stereotypical “women’s picture”, based on novels that, with apologies to Mrs. Gaskell, one might consider something like Victorian “chick lit” –  or perhaps more accurately, Victorian “granny lit”.

We shall have to wait another year or so to see what happens next with the Crawley family and their retainers.  No doubt the choice of Shirley MacLaine to play the American grandmother to Lady Mary and her sisters is specifically intended to draw in an even larger American audience, in order to see her go toe-to-toe with Dame Maggie Smith in some Dynasty-style geriatric catfighting.    However, I also have had a suspicion from Season One onward that Lady Cora and her side of the family are going to turn out to be Jewish, or at least partially Jewish, based on some things Lady Cora has mentioned in passing during the course of the series.  This would seem to be further borne out by the announcement that Ms. MacLaine’s character for “Downton Abbey” is to be named Martha Levinson.  Having this in the mix it will allow the filmmakers to explore the themes of antisemitism that in part led to the development of European fascism during the 1920′s and 30′s.

As indicated briefly above, there are many possible theories as to why “Downton Abbey” has attracted such a significant audience in this country.  They may all be valid, or none of them may be; the reader is of course free to agree or disagree with them.  However regardless of why other people watch it, or indeed my regular mockery of it on social media and in conversation with others, I must admit that I will be looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Scene from last evening’s Season Two Finale of “Downton Abbey”

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