Thursday, August 6, 2015

Upton, Downton

Since last month, I have finally had the opportunity to see episodes from the popular and critically-acclaimed British television series, Downton Abbey. While I won't go quite as far as Simon Schama did in his Newsweek article, calling it "a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery," it's good enough for me to wish there were two versions of every episode - the one everyone else has seen, and the one for people who, like me, have an attention-span that is slower than a hummingbird's. 

The episodes I watched were from Season 5, which is somewhat like beginning Proust's multi-volume masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past with The Sweet Cheat Gone. No lead-ins, no exposition, no "previously on Downton Abbey." Unfortunately, I don't think that watching season 1 through 4 would've been much help.

Julian Fellowes (aka Julian, Lord Fellowes), who created and writes Downton Abbey, also wrote the grossly overrated Gosford Park, which was mistaken for a comeback for its director Robert Altman. The movie staked out territory (shenanigans in a Great War-era English manor house, above and below decks) that Downton Abbey occupies. But my problem with the series has less to do with its content than with its technique, honed over decades of American television production, that uses rapid cutting within every scene to eliminate every superfluous second that might cause the viewer to glance at his watch or yearn for a commercial. 

I'm old enough to remember the series that Downton Abbey most resembles and on which it was apparently modeled: Upstairs, Downstairs. Both series aired on the PBS show, Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theater). Like everything else on PBS, I found the show a marvelous alternative to the noise and ugliness of commercial television, where, no matter the quality of the programming, I was exhorted to buy something I didn't need every twelve minutes in the shrillest and stupidest possible tones. 

But long ago critics started using the words "masterpiece theater" as a pejorative term, implying that certain films had been subjected to such high-minded treatment that they were stuffy, plodding, or - to use the ultimate dirty word - literary. I wondered how many of those critics had ever actually watched Masterpiece Theater or ever watched PBS for that matter? If they had, they might have discovered just how dangerous it was to use such a term, since the show, which aired out of WGBH Boston, could be some of the most challenging television around.

I watched Upstairs, Downstairs (which was created by actresses Jean Marsh - who played the maid, Rose - and Eileen Atkins) from the start of its second season on PBS (which was actually its third season) on 3 November 1974, when I was just 16. I missed the whole first season - that ended with the death of Lady Bellamy aboard the RMS Titanic - but it didn't impair my enjoyment of the rest of the series, which ended on 1 May 1977, near the end of my first year of college. The characters - Rose, Mrs. Bridges, Georgina, Mr. Hudson - came to seem like the characters in a great novel, like real people whom I had known. If television could be that good, I thought naively, why couldn't it always try to be that good? It took me a few more years to discover that great television like Upstairs, Downstairs was unpopular precisely because it placed demands on the viewer - demands that most people aren't up to.
That was forty years ago. Upstairs, Downstairs, a modest hit in the UK and, thanks to PBS, in the US, was one of the best drama series ever made for television. Unfortunately, it would probably make audiences of Downton Abbey either doze off after a few minutes or simply change the channel. What's happened to television audiences - even PBS audiences - in the forty years since Upstairs, Downstairs aired is cruelly illustrated by Downton Abbey. Like commercial television shows, it is apparently ruled by the clock. I had the distinct impression in every scene that there was someone stationed just off-camera firing a pistol every few seconds to make sure that every scene was played out in the shortest time possible. The episodes I watched hurtle along like an express train, at a completely unnatural speed - especially given that it is a period drama. The acting, the production design, the costumes, are all impeccable,(1) except you have to watch them closely as they speed by the camera. Nobody talks - and certainly nobody in Great War-era England talked - like they do in Downton Abbey. Life, the lives of the people that Downton Abbey chooses to italicize, is left somewhere on the cutting room floor simply because no one is believed to have the patience necessary to sit through it. It would require the camera to linger too long in the musty rooms of that old manor house, to follow the actors a few beats longer, to absorb, as if by osmosis, some of the marvelous, mouldy atmosphere that such places exude.  

Some critics, I'm sure, will try to argue that the pace of Downton Abbey, which doesn't seem to bother its many viewers, is a direct reflection of the advancement of contemporary viewers' ability to keep up with the progress of a film, and that it is unnecessary to put them through the paces of a time in the past, to give them a feel for a slower pace of living. It is, I think, convincing proof of the coarsening and dulling of the mass audiences' powers of concentration. 

Simon Schama condemns Downton Abbey (and the American audience that laps it up) because he finds it too formulaic - the predictable (and quite stereotypical) elements of an English manor house drama layed out like the finest silver tableware, every fork and spoon in its proper place. Evidently not content with keeping regular viewers of Masterpiece happy, the producers of Downton Abbey wanted to lure a bigger audience. In doing so, however, they are driving long-standing lovers of their show, like me, away. I will continue to watch further episodes of Downton Abbey Season 5 as they come along, but with expectations of ever-diminishing returns.

(1) According to Schama, "the series is fabulously frocked, and acted, and overacted, and hyper-overacted by all the Usual Suspects in keeping with their allotted roles."

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