The Curtain Begins to Fall on “Poirot”

Last night PBS here in America screened “The Big Four”, a television adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel featuring her world-famous private detective, Hercule Poirot.  This kick-off of the final season of the long-running British period television series, “Agatha Christie’s Poirot”, is something of a cultural watershed.  Not only is it a remarkable example of acting longevity, in that David Suchet has now played Poirot in an adaptation of every novel and major story featuring that character, but it also raises some questions about how popular culture has changed in the 25 years since the series began.

I was not surprised to learn, while researching this post, that writer Mark Gatiss adapted the screenplay of “The Big Four”.  Gatiss is the co-creator of the popular series “Sherlock”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman; he is also one of the writers for the equally popular revival of the “Dr. Who” series.  Last night’s “Poirot” episode at several points felt like a rehashed version of “Sherlock”, complete with an unexpected explosion nearly killing off the master detective.  Regular readers will know that I dislike “Sherlock” intensely.  Nor am I a fan of the revival of the Dr. Who series, even though on both of these points I realize I am in the minority.

That being said, the perceptible changes in the “Poirot” series are not down to Gettis alone, since many writers have worked on the show over the past quarter of a century.  Early episodes, for example, featured a spry, Wodehouse-like dialogue, belying the serious nature of the crimes depicted; there was also a generally bright, Art Deco look and sense of optimism to the series.  Later, “Poirot” developed a more shadowy feel, giving rise to a moodier, more Byzantine atmosphere.  The proceedings seemed to grow darker, with murders showcased in increasing detail, rather than being briefly witnessed and later alluded to.  More recently, murders on the show have often accompanied by acts of outright cruelty and humiliation beyond a simple shooting or stabbing, veering into torture.

A contributing factor to the change in tone arose from the whittling down of the regular cast.  Supporting characters such as Poirot’s sidekick, the sporty Captain Hastings, the perpetually glum Inspector Japp, and Poirot’s ever-efficient secretary Miss Lemon, created more of an ensemble feel in the earlier shows.  The actors played off of each other well, mixing seriousness and humor in an outstanding example of good casting.  The absence of these characters from more recent episodes allowed Suchet to really shine as an individual actor, but it also seemed to turn Poirot in on himself: he found himself doubting, questioning, and losing his cool more regularly.

It was obviously a joy last evening for long-time fans of the series to see the old, familiar characters in the opening scenes of the premiere of this final season.  We were treated to shots of Hastings on his ranch in the Pampas, Miss Lemon with her latest cat companion at her London home, and Japp at his desk in Scotland Yard, all within the first three minutes.  Yet even though they returned to the side of their old friend, Poirot himself is clearly not the same man whom they had last worked with years earlier.  There were moments of the old, upbeat sparkle, but on the whole the levity was long-gone, replaced with a more ponderous, sometimes sinister undertone.

Those who know how the Poirot books came to an end, as indeed shall the series, will not find these shifts entirely out of place. Over the years, Agatha Christie grew tired of her most famous literary creation, and in the 1940’s she wrote “Curtain”, the final Poirot case, to be released whenever she thought the series should finish.  The novel was kept in a bank vault, and remained unpublished until shortly before Christie’s death in 1976.

If the final episode of “Poirot” is anything like the original novel, “Curtain” will present significant ethical problems for some viewers and not for others.  Today, the seeming moral ambiguity of Poirot’s last case is something which our contemporary culture not only accepts, but demands.  Today’s audience, apparently, does not want black and white, it wants shades of gray, as it were.  Viewers want conflicted heroes who find difficulty in distinguishing right from wrong.  “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy, there’s only you and me and we just disagree,” as the old song goes.

Although I find it a pity that Christie chose to end Poirot’s career in the way that she did, it would be unfair to the producers of this final series to blame them for the darkening tone which is completely appropriate to the conclusion of this series.  This ending will also be an opportunity, for those who watch it, to observe what transpires, and ask whether there is a right and a wrong, or whether morality is always ambiguous.  The fact that we would even have such a discussion, of course, shows us that quite a lot has changed in the past quarter century, since the “Poirot” series was first broadcast.

Pauline Moran, Philip Jackson, David Suchet, and Hugh Fraser in "The Big Four" (2013)

Pauline Moran, Philip Jackson, David Suchet, and Hugh Fraser in “The Big Four” (2013)


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”