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“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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Cultivating Mystery in a Confessional Culture

The prospect of meeting up with an old friend whom you have not seen in quite some time can take one of two turns.  Either it is someone you’ve kept in regular contact with, and you are not going to have to play a huge amount of catch-up, or it is someone whom you have not spoken to with any frequency, and you have some choices to make.  It can be difficult to decide whether you plunge in and share everything that’s happened since you last saw each other, or whether you hold back since you are not that close anymore.  However this is not just an individual problem each of us has from time to time, but rather something which at present troubles society as a whole.

Paradoxically, we live in an age when no one feels the need to seek the sacrament of confession with any regularity, and yet everyone feels compelled to confess the most intimate details of their lives on social media.  This is something which used to be the almost exclusive purview of insecure entertainers, who could not be certain whether or not they were alive unless they were on-screen, on stage, or in the papers.  Now, this desire for personal glorification is everywhere.  It may once have fueled the plots of classic films like “Sunset Boulevard”, but it is now demonstrated among the untalented and ordinary by the inexplicably long-lived careers of the various members of the Kardashian clan.

That being said, there is still a place – a very important place – for moments when personal moments or thoughts are revealed.  We can think of the beauty of revelation demonstrated in C.S. Lewis’ classic “Surprised By Joy”, for example, or the often melancholy works of Frederic Chopin.  Cancer survivors learn from one another’s experiences with coping through books, talks, and support groups.  New parents learn from been-there-done-that parents in pre-natal classes and videos.

Yet even when there are revelations in such incredibly personal and intimate areas of human experience as these – faith, love, illness, birth – there must also be some element of restraint.  It is deeply regrettable that we have lost our old appreciation for mystery, in favor of throwing everything into the harsh glare of the klieg lights.  For it is in celebrating mystery that the imagination of mankind created its wonders.

An obvious instance of this is in how Western Christians worship God.  At some point in recent history, God stopped being viewed as the Almighty: mysterious, powerful, and benevolent.  Instead, he started to be seen as our peer, who would overlook anything we did wrong so long as we loved one another, under whatever definition of love one preferred to adopt.  There was to be no more fuss, no more muss, and the prayer shifted from, “Have mercy on me, Oh Lord, a sinner,” to “I’m okay, you’re okay.”  This seismic shift from God as God to God as drinking buddy was reflected in architecture, music, art, and the like.

Similarly, when women decided to “liberate” themselves from actually being women, and when men rather stupidly agreed to go along with the excesses of this and stop being men, this change was reflected in numerous ways.  It was shown in the types of films produced, for example, where the man is little more than a bundle of uncontrolled stimuli looking for an intelligent woman with vast amounts of previous sexual experience to get him under control.  It was reflected in how each of the sexes dressed, to the point where now in many cases the runways are full of garments which are completely interchangeable with no difference between them.

When there is no mystery, no “otherness”, there is no wonder.  When we share everything about ourselves with just about anyone who will listen, we cheapen ourselves and our experiences.  And much as I appreciate your readership, gentle reader, there are certain aspects of my life to which you will not be privy unless you happen to be a close friend (and perhaps not even then), for the simple reason that they are none of your business.  That is admittedly a counter-cultural attitude to take in the present day, but given the lack of culture in our present day it is in fact the only possible and sensible attitude to take.

So tonight when I have cocktails with my old friend, it will be good to catch up, and share stories of what has been going on in each of our lives.  Yet at the same time I have no intention of using the hour or two we have in each other’s company to create some kind of tawdry news bulletin about the myriad of things I have experienced since last we saw each other.  For some things, in the end, are better kept to oneself - a fact which, regrettably, contemporary society does not seem to understand.

Frangelico
“St. Peter Martyr” by Fra Angelico (c. 1441)
Museo di San Marco, Florence

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An Insufferable “Sherlock”

[N.B. For those of my American readers who are still waiting to see Sunday's premiere episode of Season 2 of "Sherlock" on PBS Masterpiece, I would advise that you not read this blog post until you have had a chance to see it.  I will not be giving too many spoilers, but nevertheless there is always the possibility that my take on the show may color yours.  So for the rest of you, let us carry on.]

If you remember the old Jeremy Brett “Sherlock Holmes” series for Granada Television, in which he played the famous detective with a mix of hyperactive theatrics and detached insouciance, no doubt like me you found Holmes was at times a rather annoying figure.  However on the whole, the producers of that series, though they took liberties with the original stories, tried to remain faithful to those tales, and to consider ideas that were interesting to Conan Doyle and those of his times: the effect of advances in the sciences and technology on both the practice and investigation of crime; curiosity in the phenomenon of spiritualism as obtained from far-flung pagan cultures; the global political implications for the British Empire of certain events, and so on.  If Brett’s Holmes was not exactly by-the-book for purists, on the whole his manifestation of the character and the series itself were at least rooted in Holmes’ era, and the environment from which he arose.

I have always thought that the premiere episode of the Brett series, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, which features the mysterious and alluring character of Irene Adler, to be one of the finest of them all.  Holmes himself is always portrayed as being somewhat asexual, with no romantic life to speak of and an attitude toward women which is one of the respect a gentleman owed a lady, coupled with a disdain for the occasionally irrational, emotional outbursts of the fairer sex.  The fact that Holmes falls, if one could put it that way, for Irene Adler, and keeps a memento of her among his possessions, brings a wonderful, unrequited quality that is touching in the great man of thought who cannot quite bring himself to be as conventional as other men are.  This is in keeping with others of his type whom we know from history, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson, or even arguably C.S. Lewis, who was as surprised as anyone when late in life he met and was briefly married to his wife, Joy.

When Sunday’s episode of “Sherlock” began,and I saw that the title was “A Scandal in Belgravia”, meaning it would be a take-off on the Irene Alder story, I knew at once that we were in for trouble.  Having seen Season 1 of “Sherlock”, I was aware that the goal of the producers was to produce something hip and cool, trying to mix elements from such disparate elements in British cinema and television as the action of “Casino Royale”, and the near-nihilism of “Waking The Dead”.  I sat through Season 1, enjoying some of the more interesting parts such as the use of text across a scene when a character receives a message, or having a camera give us a sense of how Holmes’ brain works in analyzing a group of objects or people.  However, I was always distracted by the fact that apart from the bumbling Watson, there was no grounding of morality in what I saw.

Whereas in the Brett series the characters talked of virtues such as a man’s personal honor and dignity, respect for women, charity for the poor, love of Queen and country, and so on, there is often no higher purpose to the actions of the characters in “Sherlock”.  The title character himself is simply interested in the process, which was not the case in the Brett series: no matter how much the earlier incarnation of Sherlock might have professed to be detached from emotional concerns, what drew you in was the fact that every now and then, out of some word or gesture or action, you got a sense that maybe Holmes did in fact care just a tiny bit more about what we might call old-fashioned British standards than what he let on.  By contrast in “Sherlock”, it is clearly every man – and woman – for himself, and there is nothing redeeming about anyone.  To paraphrase another Conan Doyle story, it is a study in selfishness.

In the Brett series Irene Adler was a woman who had finally found a man who loved her for herself, not for her fame, and wanted to take her away from all the glamour and glitz of high society; she wanted to sacrifice herself to marry him and to finally lead a good and quiet life, so she could get away from the King who was still besotted with her.   In her new incarnation for “Sherlock” however, Irene Adler turns out to be a bisexual professional dominatrix, who has had a dalliance with a female member of the British royal family, and kept the pictures as protection.  At the revelation of this rather repulsive plot point I probably should have turned off the television altogether, but morbid curiosity kept me tuned in to see exactly how low the series would go.

At one point, the actress playing Adler makes a rather triumphant introduction of herself to Holmes, stripping off completely naked and sitting down to chat with him and Watson in her living room, almost like a nod to Christine Keeler in the Profumo scandal.  The problem is, this rather juvenile attempt at titillation of the audience speaks more to a teenage mind than an adult one.  This Irene Adler is not a temptress: she is simply a tart.

For one thing Lara Pulver, the actress who plays Irene Adler in “Sherlock”, is a perfectly nice looking woman, but nothing special.  A Gayle Hunnicutt – the stunning, red-haired actress who portrayed Irene Adler in the Brett series – she is not. It is hard to believe that someone so ordinarily pretty as this new Irene Adler could convince high-powered members of both sexes to risk everything in order to be with her.

And while stripping off to disarm her pursuers might be considered daring television, in truth in the earlier television version what made the character so appealing was her mysteriousness. The character of Irene Adler was an opera singer who made her way into the upper classes of Europe by her beauty, talent, and graciousness, and into the beds of the men she met because she learned, as a true courtesan knows, that it is what is not revealed that entices. This new Irene Adler is little more than a lower-class stripper from some seedy burlesque club in Soho, rather than a woman trained in the art of seduction.

I will avoid going through how the rest of the story goes downhill from here, other than to say that I spent more time asking myself about plot holes than paying attention to what was going on. Why did Watson have to go to Dublin, which had nothing to do with the plot, for example? Why does the overcoat worn by the rather tall Sherlock Holmes fit the rather short Irene Adler like a tailored garment, rather than an oversized bathrobe when she puts it on? Why is Mycroft Holmes’ assistant working for Irene Adler when she comes to pick him up at Baker Street? These and many other problems will have you scratching your head repeatedly, if you choose to watch this episode.

For my part, I am now finished with “Sherlock”. I have no interest in seeing what happens to a midget Moriarty ripped from a particularly bad episode of “Gossip Girl”, running around pretending he is as good an actor as Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight Rises” (which he most certainly is not.)  And as Sunday’s episode featured Watson punching the stuffing out of Holmes – something I have wanted to do ever since I started watching this series – I believe I am now emotionally content with leaving it where it is.

A series which has gone to such great lengths to insult my intelligence and my sense of taste is worth no further consideration on my part – nor, if you take my advice, should it have any further attention from you, gentle reader, either. It is a trashy thing, albeit for admittedly trashy times, and does nothing to build up our culture or provide worthy entertainment.  My children, if and when I am fortunate to have them, will never see it in my home.  Instead, I will be very happy to sit down with them, when they are old enough, and watch the Brett series which, however dated it may be, still upholds both a certain dignity and a belief that there is a difference between good and evil, right and wrong, which is sorely lacking from this new and childish production.


Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) in “Sherlock”

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