Britney Spears and the Power of Cheese

The other night during my “special guest star appearance” at the local pub quiz – sadly, I don’t get to play as often as I used to – our team had a bonus round question which I found difficult to answer.  The question was, “Who was the only music artist to have had 14 music videos retired from Total Request Live?”  The answer ended up surprising me, although not in the way I first thought that it would.

I should explain for those who do not know, that back when MTV still played some music throughout the day, Total Request Live was a countdown-type program.  A music video voted by viewers of the show onto the countdown successfully for a month was eventually “retired”, i.e. callers were no longer allowed to continue voting for it.  This kept the turnover of music videos going, while demonstrating a particular artist’s level of popularity.

There was much debate at pub quiz as to who had achieved said popularity with MTV viewers back in the 2000’s.  Various acts were suggested around the table, but one fellow in our group insisted that the answer had to be Britney Spears.  I repeatedly rejected this, explaining that I doubted I could name more than four or five Britney Spears songs in total, let alone fourteen that were so popular that they would have been formally “retired” by MTV.

Despite my doubts, in the end the team decided to go with this answer, which turned out to be the right one.  Surprised that it was correct, I took a piece of paper, and began to write down the names of whatever Britney Spears songs came to mind.  It turned out that I could not name four or five.

In point of fact, I could easily name ten.

We don’t always realize how insidious the entertainment industry is in our present culture, until we notice the impact it has on what we might call the “background” in our lives.  Music, film, and television are all-powerful forces, even if we think of popular entertainment as nothing more than an outlet which we turn to as needed.  We may not realize it, but these works really do find their way into our subconscious, so that suddenly, we can find ourselves thinking of the lyrics to a song, or a scene from a film, and making a neural connection between that piece of entertainment, and something decision or challenge before us.

Thus, it’s important to think about the nature of the material that we are taking in, because of the lasting effect that it can have.  We don’t always stop to consider the consequences of such a decision, even as we allow such things to surround us throughout the day.  The music we mindlessly sing along to during our morning and evening commutes to work, for example, if we analyzed it, we would likely find lacking in redeeming qualities,  It often doesn’t match up with how we live our lives, or the people and ideas we hold dear.

Now of course, I’m certainly not going to say that you can’t ever enjoy some cheesy pop.  If I did, that would be both short-sighted and enormously hypocritical of me.  Not only does Britney Spears’ tune “Toxic” just so happen to be one of the best-crafted, catchy pop-dance songs ever written, but also because I do enjoy a good evening of singing pop karaoke from time to time, where I belt out songs by pop acts like Billy Idol, Weezer, and Lady Antebellum.

What’s important, it seems to me, is to recognize that you need to be consuming substantial entertainment, not just living on processed cheese.  If you supplement your entertainment diet with great works of music, film, art, literature, and so on, to counterbalance the easily disposable stuff, you will be better off.  You don’t have to give up the easy stuff altogether.  Just be sure to go for the real stuff, as well.

Detail of "Still Life with Cherries and Cheese" by Joseph Plepp (1632) The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Detail of “Still Life with Cherries and Cheese” by Joseph Plepp (1632)
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

“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”

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”