Jan 21, 2013

The Never Ending Procession of Selfless Souls

This conversation began between Nick C and I at work, and concluded between the Wife and I at home.

Poor Edith.  And the Wife and I love her dress.

Nick C and I both enjoy Downton Abbey, but were both trying to make precious just why DA has hit such a nerve here in the United States and has become so popular.  Honestly, DA is not much different than any of the other Masterpiece Theater/Upstairs Downstairs period dramas that came before it.  Or, Gosford Park.  Julian Fellowes, of course, wrote Gosford Park, as well.  And, Maggie Smith stars in both.  Gosford Park had the supreme ensemble directing talent of Robert Altman, too.  And, more English star power than any recent film in memory.  DA went with young unknowns and character stalwarts of British television.  (I just saw Bates in Prime Suspect 7 the other day.  He really can walk! He might not be the nicest man in history!) And, the direction, at times for DA, is spotty at best.  The Wife and I saw an episode from season two recently, chock full of good writing and unusual situations, that was a complete mess in terms of composition, lighting, and editing.  They were having problems with the basic over the shoulder/POV conversation set-ups.  (I suspect it was a young director trying too hard.) Anyhoo, Nick C and I did not think too hard on it, and left our question unanswered.

When I took the question home to Renee, she had an answer in an instant.  The Wife believes that DA is so popular now due to the fact that television today, despite being smack dab in the middle of a New Scripted Television Golden Age, is still supremely commanded by Reality Programs such as American Idol, Jersey Shore, Housewives, etc, ... Renee believes Americans are cuddling up with DA because after ingesting all that junk all day long -- and it is not just teevee junk; but friendface junk, and YouTube junk, and viral videos, and all the scores of other media platforms bearing down on our senses, vying for every second of our attention -- watching DA relaxes them, and makes them feel smart.  Or, I might add, well-rounded and good.

I do not mean good in the sense of experiencing personal pleasure -- although DA often provides plenty of that.  I mean that Americans watch DA, safe in the belief that they will feel that they are, or can be, or will be a better person, a force for good, merely by parking their cans on the couch at nine o'clock on a Sunday evening.  Which is dangerous when you think about it.  True spectators to the Spectacle, where living by proxy is not.

Wow.  What a crank, right? Remember, I like DA.  A great deal.  I have seen every episode and I will continue to watch it until the end, I imagine.  And, I am just as vulnerable to the Spectacle and living by proxy as anyone else.  I am just the sort of pretentious sod that really enjoys Godard films these days because it makes me feel smart or cool, hipper than the average Blockbuster-Driven Cinema Patron today.

But, I am getting off-track.  DA is so popular now because Americans are fed up with the self-serving instant celebrity media culture that they live in.  They are still addicted to it, mind you.  DA is the methadone to the rest of our culture's smack.  And that is a good thing.  It is a good thing in our culture right now to be in rapture with a piece of art that time and time again stresses Doing the Right Thing and living selflessly over self-promotion and hateful back stabbing.  It may be naive.  (Not every flipping person in the teens and twenties of the last century was that good!) It may be heavy-handed at times.  (When will Bates drag that cross through the town square?) It may not even make for the greatest art, but on the whole it is actually just what our nation could use a heaping helpful of right now.  Plus, manners and etiquette need some serious working on here Stateside.  Fellowes is a stone-cold genius.  He picked the absolute best time to lay this on us.

I have not researched it, but the most delicious irony of all this is that DA is the type of show that all Right Wing talking heads should slaver over, but I suspect they are not.  First, it is on PBS, which they abhor.  Secondly, Fellowes suggests we should be like Jesus, as opposed to worshipping him and proselytizing.  (Always a good thing in my book, even though the Wingers hate it.) And, thirdly, there is a fair amount of infidelity and gay stuff going on.  (What? There were gay people back then?) I could be completely wrong on this.  I will check it out and correct myself in a future post if need be.

Finally, when push comes to shove, I still maintain that I, Claudius is miles better than Downton Abbey.  I, Claudius was brilliant in showing us that life has not really changed that much for Westerners since the Roman Empire.  Plus, it is not as didactic in nature as DA, showing us a massive rainbow of types of personalities; some good, many, most absolutely awful true villains at heart.  Just like real-life today.  And I, Claudius did it with acting and writing alone.  I, Claudius was done so cheaply that they often used Theatre "sets".  That is where you play scenes on a black stage with just a pool of light on you, and sound effects, if necessary.  Brilliant stuff.  And, a cracking cast, too, including John Hurt, Derek Jacoby, Sian Phillips (soooo good!), Partick Stewart, and Brian Blessed.

You can watch a lot of I, Claudius on YouTube, though I would heartily recommend you just buy the dvd set yourself.


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