Tag Archives: television

“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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Premiering Tonight: The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land

Those who are regular perusers of these pages will remember my review of Diana von Glahn’s terrific series “The Faithful Traveler” on EWTN.  Well now, Diana is back with a new series, premiering tonight at 6:30 pm Eastern on EWTN, which she and her husband David talked about with us recently on the Catholic Weekend show.  In “The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land”, the von Glahns take us on the pilgrimage of a lifetime, and you will most definitely want to come along for the trip.

Employing a mix of documentary-style footage, unscripted observations, and interesting interviews, with – I have to say – some beautifully photographed segments and well-designed, appropriately helpful graphics, this six-part series covers many of the places most of us only know from Bible stories.  From Mount Carmel, Bethlehem, and Nazareth, to Jericho, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, we are shown all over Israel and Palestine.  Along the way we see many amazing things, we meet interesting people, we laugh, and we may even shed a tear.

We also come to appreciate why seeing these places is such a wonderful opportunity for Christians to understand their faith on a new level.  As Diana takes great pains to point out, we cannot know for certain, in most cases, whether a particular contemporary structure does in fact stand on the site of the original one from Biblical times.  Yet without focusing so much on that issue, she helps the viewer to consider the broader historicity of the Bible.  For example, St. Luke in his Gospel describes the Virgin Mary as proceeding in haste to the Hill Country in Judea, to visit the now-pregnant St. Elizabeth.  Well and there it is, on screen: the Hill Country of Judea, which as Diana shows us, is very hilly indeed.

Throughout this well-produced series, it is difficult to imagine a more engaging on-screen travel companion in the land of the Bible than Diana.  She has done her homework, as any good guide should, mixing a careful balance of providing information of interest to all, with offering some clarification for those who might not have heard of a particular term or concept before.  She is a charming, natural tour guide, never saccharine, and clearly enjoyed the experience – that comes through in spades during the series.  At the same time, she is also realistic about things, such as how exhausting all of the walking is going to be if you do go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

One technical aspect of the show I personally appreciated, and which a lesser producer would not have bothered to take the time to do, was the incorporation of subtitles when needed.  While someone on camera may well be speaking English, we have all been in a situation where we can understand what someone with a thick accent is saying when they are speaking *to* us, but not when they are recorded.  The show makes certain that if there is any question about whether the speaker can be understood, the subtitles go in to help the viewer.

I also appreciated the fact that Diana does not just visit the sites one would expect her to, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, although of course she does so and takes part in the pious devotions associated with them to show us how it’s done.  However she also takes the time to visit some lesser-known gems in the Holy Land, which I might not otherwise have seen or heard about.  The beautiful little Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation for example, is much smaller than the Basilica of the Annunciation nearby, and yet to my mind is a far more beautiful structure.  And I was surprised to learn about the Church of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, with its beautiful blue and white azulejos and religious art from Spain, given that I have a particular devotion to his birthday and connection to that country.

The fact that there were these two beautiful churches, among many highlighted in the series, surprised me a great deal, as I have seen so many images of really hideous structures over there.  Of course, there is the sweep of history to consider, and Diana makes the point of explaining – and in some cases being able to show us – how layer upon layer of Christian buildings were built one atop the other, as styles changed and wars and time damaged older construction.  Moreover, when she likes something in a building, she likes it, and when she is not so fond of something, she is charitable about it, which is a virtue I could certainly get better at practicing.

Diana also takes time to draw attention to the fact that the native Christian populations in the Holy Land are declining, a phenomenon we are seeing throughout the Middle East.  One comes to understand and appreciate that in many cases, these pilgrimage shrines are not just historic sites, but people’s parish churches, and a part of their community fabric.  So often in these conflicts the plight of Christians caught in the middle are completely ignored by the outside world, while not-so-subtle threats are posted – as Diana shows us – against those who choose to practice Christianity.  The safety and well-being of these communities is something all of us ought to be keeping in our prayers.

You can watch a preview of “The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land” below, and for air times for all six parts, as well as re-air dates, be sure to check the EWTN website.  You can also purchase copies of BOTH series from the von Glahns at their own site, and particularly for those of my readers who are homeschoolers, this might be something very much worth looking into.  It is a real pleasure to see my fellow Domer Diana back on television again with such a terrific series, one which I highly recommend to my readers.

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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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How SQPN Prepared Me for the BBC

As you may have heard through other social media outlets, gentle reader, I was recently on BBC News talking about the election of Pope Francis as the new head of the Catholic Church.  I had held off blogging about this until now because the video was only uploaded to YouTube yesterday, and you can see the results here.  However I also wanted to connect this blog post with SQPN’s giving campaign, since without the experience of having been a regular panelist on the “Catholic Weekend” show on that network for the past year, I doubt very much I would have been ready for this rather unique opportunity.  Moreover, I want to encourage you to consider donating to SQPN as I do, to support their many terrific programs.

A week ago I received an email from someone claiming to be at the BBC in London, which arrived via the email address for this blog.  Curiously, the message began, “Dear Christopher,” which of course is not my name.  It then went on to invite me, as a Catholic blogger, to appear on a BBC discussion panel about the new pope.  I wrote back inquiring as to whether this was some sort of joke, and also pointing out that my name was not in fact Christopher.

The response came that in fact they had been looking for a British blogger, and somehow had ended up contacting me, which is rather odd because when they sent me the link to the blog they were trying to get in touch with, the site had been taken down.  There must have been some link to one of my posts, or some such thing, for The Beeb to end up at my online door.  After explaining that I was not the party in question, but that I was indeed a Catholic and a blogger, as well as a weekly podcast guest, the young lady at the BBC commented that I would be even better for this program than the person she had been trying to locate.

After a lengthy pre-interview conversation via Skype, it was arranged that I should be at the BBC’s studios here in Washington the following morning by 10:30 am.  Fortunately by pure chance I had already made arrangements that evening to have dinner with an old friend and his wife – who just so happens to be from Buenos Aires.  It allowed me the chance to talk to two people with a more secular outlook on the world about their perceptions and thoughts regarding Pope Francis.  It was not a practice run, but  something more like airing ideas that allowed me to come down to some key talking points later.

I arrived earlier than I needed to at the BBC, and sat around for a bit waiting for things to happen.  I had been in a television studio once before in high school, to tape a local commercial about not drinking and driving during prom season – which in my case was not a problem since I did not go to my prom anyway.  However this of course was the newsroom-television studio of the legendary British Broadcasting Corporation, the largest news-gathering organization in the world, and that is somewhat quite different to anticipate.  For here, you are not so much thinking about whether you are going to embarrass your parents, but whether you are going to embarrass your country or your Church, before billions of people who watch the BBC all over the world.

Now there is nothing particularly glamorous about the newsroom of the BBC in Washington when you actually get to see it in person, which I imagine is rather what other international news organizations’ newsrooms are like as well.  There is a strange mixture of people in shirts and ties mingling about with people who look as though they have slept in a mechanic’s jumpsuit for a week.  There are tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment hanging about everywhere, big lines of duct tape running every which way all over the carpets, and people running in and out doing whatever it is they are doing.  It reminded me more of a doctor’s waiting room than the theatre.

Indeed, when they took me back to the camera room where I would be shooting, with its animated backdrop of the White House, the space felt eerily reminiscent of going to have x-rays taken.  I was hooked up with a microphone and earpiece, and told where to look, and where to sit.  Then a British voice came on in my ear from London telling me what to do, and that periodic whisper in my ear became my lifeline for the next hour or so.

Everyone was very kind and tried to put me at ease, though of course because I was in a remote studio rather than on set in London, at the time it was difficult to know for certain whether I was coming across well or not.  In our normal conversations with other people we have not only their voices, but also their facial expressions, gestures, and so on to tell us whether we are getting through to them, making them upset, or what have you.  When you are simply listening to disembodied voices, as I was, it is a bit more difficult to know whether you are doing it right.

And yet ironically enough, it was at this precise moment where my past year of experience on SQPN’s “Catholic Weekend” show came in tremendously useful.  Originally we recorded the show via Skype, just using voices, which of course makes sense since a podcast is more like a radio show than a television program.  As a result, one became more and more accustomed to listening for those audio cues and breaks to step in or to step back.  It is a skill which I still have to master, but which I am certainly getting better at with time.

Thus, even though I could not see anyone I was talking to on the BBC, I very quickly fell into the same pattern I would have recording an episode of “Catholic Weekend” – albeit not in my jammies with a cup of coffee,  sifting through the technical train wreckage and laughing at bad puns before we go on the air.  Nevertheless it turned out to be wonderful training for this, which meant that whatever I may have looked like, I felt very relaxed on camera.  It is difficult to describe but once the lights go on, YOU go on, as well.  Concerns about whether you will do well or not simply evaporate and you just do what you are there to do.

The reader – or rather, viewer – can judge for himself whether he thinks I did well or not, but I will say that my “handler” at the BBC emailed me when I returned to the office and told me I did great and that they would love to have me on again if I were willing.  It remains to be seen whether I will do so, since it is unlikely they will cover a topic of such interest to me personally again any time soon.  However I do want to say how grateful I am to them for giving me this opportunity not only to speak about my Faith and about our new Holy Father Pope Francis, but also to Father Roderick, Captain Jeff, and everyone at SQPN, for without the past year of experience in podcasting I would probably not have done nearly as decent a job as I (arguably) did.


The author looking somewhat smug in his Churchill dot necktie.


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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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