Friday, November 1, 2013

Why I Loathe Downton Abbey


A post from last October when I was living in Seattle and I saw Downton Abbey for the first time on PBS and was somewhat hooked and somewhat aghast...(I'm a lot mellower now, I promise.)
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I hadn't seen Downton Abbey until this weekend but I knew it sounded dodgy because The Daily Mail has been boosting it for the last two years and anything The Daily Mail loves is prima facie revolting. The paper who drooled over Hitler until September 1 1939 (and secretly until May 1940) has long been a champion of reactionary rhetoric and causes. But I've been puzzled by Downton Abbey because it keeps winning awards and Hollywood is far to the left of The Daily Mail. What gives? I decided that I should probably watch this show and decide for myself, which is what I did on Sunday.  
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The first thing to say is that Downton Abbey is right wing patrician propaganda of the silliest kind. The benevolent view of the upper classes and the condescending treatment of the lower orders is so sniveling and ridiculous that I wonder that the cast doesn't blush with shame every time they go on set. All the cruelest, wickedest characters live below stairs and although the upstairs ladies and gents sometimes are a bit bitchy basically they are the benevolent overloads of the Empire. Johnny Foreigner is not to be trusted in Downton Abbey be he greasy Turk or gauche American and in one embarrassing scene even the Irish Republican chauffeur breaks down and admits that he secretly worships the English ruling class. So I can see why The Daily Mail loves this show. They would like nothing less than to turn back the clock to 1913 when the lower orders and women knew their place and puffy faced men ruled one quarter of the globe from London clubs. But why do the Emmy voters love Downton Abbey too? Well just because it's reactionary nonsense doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad show. Some of my favourite writers have been right wing nuts: Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin spring to mind. And what Downton has going for it is the fact that its pretty funny. Maggie Smith is a gem and wisely they have a policy of giving her all the best lines. Dame Maggie Smith could read the phone book (is there still a phone book?) and make it entertaining and here she has sensibly decided to ignore her actual character and just play Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell for all she's worth. However like Tom Reagan being led into the woods of Miller's Crossing the snappy dialogue does tend to dry up as time marches on. Series 2 doesn't have too many gags and when Dame Maggie isn't on screen the charisma drops by a million candle power. Without good dialogue you start to notice the actual plot and the plot, good Lord, is the cheesiest of cheesy soap opera. It's a prettily shot and wonderfully lit soap opera though, with ravishing costumes, nice frocks and an attractive cast (well attractive for England anyway). So I think the Emmy voters like Downton Abbey because most of them are actors and actors dig soap opera and American actors in particular tend to think anything from the BBC and England is classy (even though Downton Abbey is actually a production of ITV). 
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If Downton Abbey were a better show its values might stir the blood and hasten the revolution but it's so vulgar and cliched and laughable that no one is going to get too worked up about it. It gets its facts wrong all the time (in one episode set in 1918 two characters were talking about the "rising that happened in Dublin last Easter") and it gets cheesier and lazier as Julian Fellowes (his actual name is, get this, Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford) runs of material. But like I say none of this matters that much. Downton Abbey can be enjoyed by many walks of American life: ladies with cats, ladies without cats who like old frocks, Anglophile gay men, conservatives longing for the good old days, and Brits abroad (for ironic mocking reasons). The intersection of all these types and thus the ideal American viewer of Downton Abbey would have to be Quentin Crisp but he, alas, has passed.