As mid-season television gets up and running (Hello 30 Rock!) there’s a handful of shows that seem to be taking all the buzz–Alcatraz, which does look interesting in a Lost/Fringe sort-of-way and has the chutzpah to cast a four-hundred-pound dude as the lead, will almost certainly find its way onto my DVR where it will probably reside for months by my unwatched episodes of Terra Nova. Finder looks kooky, probably too kooky. Touch? Don’t mind if I do, for a week or two.
Nope, barring surprises, there are really only two shows I am looking forward to this winter: Cake Boss Challenge and Say Yes to the Dress.
Joking. I am pumped about Justified, as you should be, on FX, and Downton Abbey.
Because what’s not to like about a BBC/PBS series about WWI gentry in the English countryside? What’s that? You think it looks boring? That it looks like the kind of stuffy, stick-up-your-ass, Evelyn Waugh-esque, oh-no-Jeeves-I-burnt-the-crepes bullshit that your grandma probably likes?
Well, your grandma probably DOES like it. But your grandma likes light bondage and moonshine too, and we all know those things keep a body healthy, wealthy, and wise.
So trust your grandma. She’s good people, and will cut a bitch if she thinks you’re disrespecting the Abbey.
Seriously, though (I love that transition–I feel like I’m at The Funny Bone…), Downton Abbey is not boring, but it is deliberate, and I don’t see anything wrong with careful plotting, character development, and attention to time and place. If that’s boring to you, stop reading my blog and turn Family Guy back on. You know it’s playing somewhere.
Julian Fellowes created it, and intended it as a miniseries. It’s available, I believe, on Netflix, and only six hours long, as is the second season that started two nights ago on PBS. Julian Fellowes also wrote Gosford Park, the Robert Altman film from about ten years ago and one of the great films of the previous decade. Downton Abbey, like Gosford Park, concerns the Upstairs/Downstairs machinations of a large country manor in pre-Great War England. But whereas Gosford Park drew its inspiration from Agatha Christie and was, at heart, a “locked-room mystery”, even a “cozy”, Downton Abbey is more expansive, with fifteen or so major characters and a canvas that stretches from the sinking of the Titanic to the advent of the Great War and beyond.
Essentially, Fellowes is interested in the idea of class structure and how it fell apart during WWI, as technology, philosophy, and abhorrent violence became more important than titles, and money superceded pedigree. Sounds awesome, right?
Here’s what I really love about it: a good portion of the time, television seems to have no real endgame in mind. The new default setting for writers, even on popular shows, is to throw twist after twist at the audience until it’s so convoluted that it will never be satisfyingly finalized. Even strong, creatively interesting shows–American Horror Story, Homeland, and The Killing to name a few–have a tendency to throw in the kitchen sink under the impression that they will have time to follow up, later. Or maybe it’smore cynical than that. Maybe, because U.S. television is subject to forces beyond the writers’ control, shows can always get cancelled and blame the ratings, therefore never having to deal with the pile of fishhooks they called “complications.”
Some shows have dodged this. Breaking Bad is pretty solid and revisits hanging threads. Fringe does a nice job of explaining away different plot holes. There’s an exccellent article about this phenomenon in the New York Times Magazine. I disagree with the writer in that I believe the phenomenon started wwith The X Files, not Lost, but theory holds. However, Fellowes has six episodes, in and out. Each series–and this is pretty consistent with the BBC in general–functions as a novel in form, and for the most part the shows end with a very discernible artistic presence, a control and palpable sense of decision that is refreshing. Or maybe Fellowes is simply an admirably good writer and plotter.
And yet I was worried. Downton Abbey was only supposed to be one season, and now it’s two, due to its popularity stateside. I certainly don’t want us vulgar Yanks ruining the inherent elegance of the show, even though I’m happy to have it back, but I’m happy to report that the first two episodes of the second season, to my lights, are fantastic. Season one ended with England’s declaration of war, in 1914, and we begin season two at the Battle of the Somme, which despite the show’s modest budget looks pretty epic. I’m always happy with the costumes and hairstyles in the show. They look realistic, lived in, and not at all like costumes. I think that has a lot to do with casting, as well. Elizabeth McGovern, as Lady Grantham, looks very appropriate to the period, as do her daughters. Maggie Smith is, of course, a time traveler from the Edwardian period so she fits right in.
There’s the requisite scheming and machinations, the servant’s manipulations of their employers and vice-versa, basically everything you would expect from this kind of period-era sudser, but what really impresses me is Fellowes’s moral and thematic generosity. The characters, vile or admirable, are humanely and compassionately written, all are individuals, and all are understandable in their foibles and triumphs. More importantly, Fellowes has a very strict, old-fashioned sense of duty, honor, and loyalty, and though all the characters have a chance to achieve happiness, that happiness is dependent upon a certain level of kindness and generosity towards others. Sophisticated moral and ethical complications are what drive the plot, and though each character is interested in his or her own social, economic, and/or romantic advancement, there is an implicit but palpable expectation that one’s success should not come at the expense of another. This very unironic ideal is square, to say the least, and yet it’s so refreshing to watch a show that seeks to show good people wrestling with sticky decisions and trying, failing, and succeeding to fulfill not just what their minds and hearts want, but their souls as well.
I haven’t seen a program squeeze so much tension from the presentation of good, flawed people trying to act morally since The West Wing.
So watch the show. I’ve been deliberately vague about the stories and characters. I don’t want to ruin it for you, and it’s so complicated that a summary would double the length of the post. It’s not something I’d normally watch, but I really haven’t been this pumped for a new season since The Walking Dead, and that turned out OK, right?