January 20, 2014 @ 2:29 pm | Filed under: Television
I once read a scathing review of my book Little House by Boston Bay in which the reviewer lambasted me for utterly mischaracterizing events in a small Massachusetts village during the Revolutionary War. The reviewer was something of an expert on the Revolution and was openly disgusted with my apparent ignorance. Such-and-such would not have happened during the War of Independence, he declared, did not happen. And he was right: because, you see, Boston Bay does not take place during the War of Independence. The novel is set in 1814, some thirty years after the end of the Revolution, during the War of 1812. The reviewer, it turned out, disliked my book because he thought he was reading an entirely different book.
It struck me this week that I’ve been doing the same thing with Downton Abbey. I’ve been mentally classifying it as the same kind of smart, probing period drama as the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, when really what it is is a beautifully dressed Melrose Place. It is, I can confidently say, the most gripping and linguistically clever Melrose Place I’ve ever seen. But it’s never going to be Pride and Prejudice, in which every tiny morsel of plot supports the primary narrative and themes. Here we will have characters stride in, devastate a life or two, and stride back out into the credits, serving purposes more dramatic than transformative.
I’m trying to make my peace with this, trying to stop expecting a bite of orange when I sink my teeth into an apple.
And so we say goodbye to Braithwaite, that “manipulative little witch,” as Thomas called her, and to Lord Gillingham as well. Ah, Tony, we hardly knew ye. Mrs. Hughes dispatched Edna as effortlessly as she would have swatted a fly. (And just as viciously. “I’ll tear the clothes from your body and hold you down”—good heavens! Since that’s exactly what happened to Anna last week, this remark is in rather bad taste.) It’s interesting to note that Mrs. Hughes is the real mover and shaker of this season so far, the catalyst of events in the lives of Isobel, Carson, and now Tom. I’m fully expecting her to be the eventual force of reconnection for Anna and Bates. Perhaps not; Anna is generally her own catalyst, but I can’t imagine Mrs. Hughes will be able to watch this painful distancing go on for long without interfering in some small way.
But I’m not quite ready to talk about Anna yet.
I liked Lord Gillingham quite a lot and I thought Mary’s scenes with him were her finest of the season so far—the layers of her emotions each distinct and apparent. Affection, wistfulness, regret, ache. But it was too soon, too soon, for us to root for that romance, and in the end, her gentle refusal felt entirely familiar. We’ve seen Mary in this moment before. The only fresh note was when her calm mask cracked, her eyes filled with tears, and she spoke of how Matthew fills her brain and she isn’t ready for that to change, isn’t ready to mentally leave him. That was a raw, honest moment, but still the whole story arc left me feeling like I’d been strong-armed back onto a roller coaster before I’d caught my breath from the last looping ride. Also, now I have to think about Tony being sad and stoic out in the world somewhere, making the best of a life with poor Mabel.
Will everyone please stop bumping into Isobel in the graveyard? We get it, she’s there a lot. One tombstony encounter would have been sufficient to make the point (and I’m certain we’re going to see another proposal before the season’s out—I only hope we don’t have to watch another regretful ‘I’m terribly sorry but no’).
At the Lotus Club—why on earth didn’t Tom or Tony go rescue Rose sooner instead of sitting there watching that drunken Bullock slobber all over her? Oh that’s right, it was to contrive a moment—and a very sweet moment it was—between Rose and the singer. Well, it could have been much less clumsily contrived. Now the question is, will Mr. Ross be dispatched brokenhearted in the next episode a la that nice young farmer, or is he the next Tom Branson/Michael Gregson?
Speaking of Michael, it’s remarkable how the bold, modern Edith shrinks back into her chastened, pre-war self the moment Rosamund raises an eyebrow in her direction. But then I think Edith has a lot of uncertainty about this very unorthodox path she’s walking. At least her aunt doesn’t underestimate her, the way everyone else persists in doing, year in, decade out. “Edith’s as mysterious as a bucket”—oh, come on. (I forget who said it—Mary? Cora?)
I’ll leave the tortured Kitchen Love Rectangle to the rest of you. Still wondering why Daisy chooses to stay at Downton in misery rather than go be mistress of her very own farm. If ever a woman needed a change of scenery, it’s that one.
As for Anna and Bates…I don’t know. I’m so unhappy about this story arc that I find myself just hoping it’ll all be resolved quickly, and then I feel sick, because of course that’s the point. What happened to Anna can’t be ‘resolved quickly,’ can’t be neatly wrapped up in a three-episode arc. It’s 2014, and rape should not be Melrosed.
I did watch an interview with Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna, discussing her confidence in Fellowes and her feeling that the storyline is not gratuitous (i.e. not being played for drama only). I appreciate her thoughtful comments (here’s the link if you can’t see the video below), and I want to say I think Froggatt is doing a beautiful job of conveying Anna’s pain and trauma. But. But. Something still isn’t sitting right with me, and it’s what I talked about last week: the decision to create a rift between Anna and Bates before her trauma. His sharpness and jealousy, the suggestion that Anna was being a bit flirty with Mr. Green. Those two writerly decisions (and always, always with this show, we come back to the very visible hand of The Writer, who is meant to be invisible) are so wrongheaded they undermine whatever sensitive or unflinching exploration of a very real trauma they are striving to create.
I’m also bothered that Anna’s trauma is becoming all about Bates. He did kind of bully her with his “I will find out.” Bates is being written all wrong this season, period.
Well, Carson’s being written rather wonderfully, I’ll give Melrose Abbey that much. He wins best line this week: “I always think there’s something rather foreign about high spirits at breakfast.” Oh, the layers of disdain he piles into the word ‘foreign’!
So who’s your pick for the next lady’s maid? A return of Miss O’Brien? She’s not that old. I’m trying to remember what ‘older’ women Thomas knows…
January 13, 2014 @ 7:31 pm | Filed under: Television
I don’t have the heart to do a full recap right now. That was a horrible turn of events, wrenchingly depicted, and I’m upset on about fifty different levels, not least of which is a fear that this plotline is being played for drama only and won’t succeed (even if it wants to) at taking a really meaningful look at that issue, which ought never never never to be played for drama only.
I will say this: even before we arrived at that terrible point, I was frustrated as all get-out by the way Anna and Bates were being made to behave. I say “being made to” because their interactions felt absolutely contrived, not organic. His cantankerous jealousy, her obliviousness to the villain’s obvious flirting. (And what are we to make of THAT? The price of friendly banter? Infuriating, and treads perilously close to suggesting her behavior played a role in what happened next.)
I set too much stock in TV relationships; this is a running joke between Scott and me. For a couple of seasons of The Office, I took it very hard if there was any whiff of trouble of a certain kind between Jim and Pam (after they were together). I welcomed organic challenges to their relationship—smooth sailing does not gripping viewing make—but I wanted believable challenges, not manufactured ones. And for many seasons, that show was remarkably successful in placing organic obstacles in their path. It was fun and refreshing to see them as allies and co-conspirators. So often, television seems to feel that as soon as the long-yearned-for romance is realized, it must Get Rocky and Face Threats. The Office accomplished something unusual in presenting us a strong Jim-and-Pam team that endured many years before a writerly wedge was thrust between them. (And for the record, during that final season, I kept hollering at Jim to SHOW PAM THE FOOTAGE. It was all there, his dogged devotion. My satisfaction when he finally listened knew no bounds.)
In Downton, I’ve taken a similar pleasure in the Anna and Bates relationship. They’ve weathered trials together, united. And now, even before the rape (it pains me to write that word so casually, as a plot point, which is my much larger problem with this episode than the subject of this paragraph), we’re shown little tendrils of doubt and discord coiling between them, and I don’t buy that for a second. Not to go all Kathy-Bates-in-Misery on Julian Fellowes, but, well, Annie Wilkes, whatever else her failings, did have a sound understanding of story.
Mr. Bates would never embarrass his wife in public!
But even that, the hamhandedly portrayed strife between Anna and Bates, seems almost inappropriate to complain about after what happened next. As for everything else that happened in this episode, I hardly know how to feel about any of it. I mean, how can there be a rest of the episode after what happened to Anna? I’m supposed to care about Jimmy’s sprained wrist and his oddly ambiguous behavior toward Ivy? About Robert’s deep discomfort over dining with a (gasp) world-famous opera singer?
I liked Lord Gillingham but am, like Isobel, not quite ready to watch Mary edge toward a new romance. Two episodes on, perhaps. For now I’d rather watch her duke it out with Lord Grantham over the estate. I did enjoy their conversations and was happy to hear the tartness return to Mary’s voice. Much better than Zombie Mary.
Boy, the good doctor hovers mighty close to Isobel’s side these days, doesn’t he?
Does anyone who talks to Tom remember that he, too, has lost a cherished spouse?
Molesley. I just. He’d be much less pathetic if he’d stop talking about how pathetic he is. But it rings true to character, at least. Molesley never has done himself any favors. Grumping aloud to the Dowager while serving dinner was a bit of a stretch, however.
I cared a lot about the Edith and Mr. Gregson storyline, until I didn’t. Trouncing the card sharp might have been an entertaining thread in another episode, but the show’s final moments retconned the rest of it for me, rendering all the mini-dramas frivolous.
Someone who’s seen the rest of the season, tell me it’s worth hanging in there for.
January 8, 2014 @ 6:09 pm | Filed under: Television
This two-hour episode took me a few nights to get through. All the time I was watching it, I was thinking, am I going to recap it this year? I’ve recently stepped away from GeekMom to take a new position as editor at DamnInteresting.com (a site that more than lives up to its name, and one Scott and I have enjoyed for years), so I won’t be recapping over there this year. I loved writing those posts last season, but I admit it’s a bit of relief to let go of the self-imposed pressure to get a recap up the night an episode airs. Those were some late nights I was pulling, for a while there!
But I’ll miss the conversation, and since I’ve been getting a lot of email inquiries about the recaps, I thought I’d open the topic for discussion over here. As always, this is an open thread, not a sequential play-by-play of plot points. So I’ll throw out a few things, and you can all chime in as you wish.
OBLIGATORY SPOILER WARNING
Once again PBS is conflating two one-hour British episodes into one long one for the American audience. Honestly, I don’t think this serves the show very well, nor will, I’d hazard, binge-viewing it on DVD. We have too many repetitive conversations in these two hours. A week’s space between them would have rendered the repetition less obvious. How many times must we listen to Lord Grantham orate that Mary must be kept wrapped in cotton-wool? How many times must Mrs. Hughes harangue poor Carson in one night of television viewing? It’s rather amazing, actually, that with the quantities of plotlines being unfurled here (I’ll attempt a tally in a moment) we wound up with so many repeated conversations. By the end, my head was smarting from all the hammer-blows.
Now, plotlines: let’s see.
1) Mary is very sad, and not terribly interested in her baby.
2) Lord Grantham wants to sell land to pay the death duties on the estate, and while he’s at it unravel most of the work Matthew did to save said estate’s bacon.
3) Tom and the Dowager Countess are united (among others) in wanting Mary to play a more active role in estate decision-making, and they’re annoyed with Lord Grantham’s reluctance. (See above, cotton-wooling.)
3b) Matthew left a will of sorts after all! Should we let Mary read it?
3b.1) Also, the stuffed doggy. ::sniffle::
3c) Mary owns half of Downton. Stay tuned for epic showdowns. Will there be anything left for wee George but rubble?
4) Carson’s shady old theater chum wants to see Carson to set things right, and also wants help climbing out of the pit he’s in. From the moment Mrs. Hughes digs through Carson’s trash, this becomes her mission in life.
4a) Said mission dovetails nicely with a push to snap Isobel out of her own grief-induced apathy. (I enjoyed that bit very much.)
5) Everyone’s got a Valentine! Who gave whose?
5a) Belowstairs love triangle continues from last season with no apparent progress. Daisy likes Alfred likes Ivy likes Jimmy likes messing with people.
6) This week’s special guest: new-fangled electric mixer, aka the worst thing to happen to Mrs. Patmore since presbyopia.
7) Nanny DARES to tell Thomas not to touch the baby? Beware his diabolical machinations.
7a) Oh but wait! Turns out Nanny’s a horrible person. Hooray, Thomas!
8) Boo, Thomas. Saucy former-housemaid-turned-lady’s-maid Edna fills all vacancies left by O’Brien’s departure, especially Co-Conspirator of Thomas. Watch your back, Anna. That’ll learn you to be nice.
8a) Really? REALLY? Lady Grantham is that ready to believe Anna would vandalize a garment out of spite? Has she MET Anna? Not buying it. Nor the dispatching of Lord G. to have Mr. Bates bring his unkind wife in line. I MEAN COME ON. (Sorry, that was the one that really got to me.)
9) Young Rose wants adventure, and what’s more adventurous than posing as a housemaid and half-falling for a winsome young under-gardener or whatever he was. Sorry, it was noisy in that dance hall.
10) Oh, Molesley. Poor Molesley. Chucked out of Downton, no new prospects. Pounding tar. Racking up debt. Pitied by all.
10a) Just because the Dowager Countess thinks highly of her butler doesn’t mean he is above petty jealousies and sabotage. Sorry, Mose.
10b) But if your plight makes Anna sad, you’ll be okay, because Mr. Bates won’t stand for that. In prison they teach you how to sneakily give money to people.
11) You didn’t think I’d forgotten Edith, did you? What am I, her mother? I adore Edith. She’s blooming with love, wearing fabulous garments, and gearing up to shock the bluebloods with her impending nuptials to a divorceé and (even worse) voluntary German national.
Plotlines I’m really invested in: 3c. I’m sorry Lord Grantham has become so insufferable, but in a way I think his character arc is the most realistic. A decade-long series of tragedies, shocks, and disappointments has left him insecure, vulnerable, and obstinate. He has felt powerless ever since losing his wife’s fortune and imperiling the estate, and his WWI chapter (here, be a jolly good figurehead, old sport) didn’t help. The more the women and former chauffers in his life berate him for his bad behavior (and it IS bad), the more stubbornly he digs in. He’s the 85-year-old who refuses to give up his driver’s license even after the fourth time he’s backed into the mailbox.
So I may not like his character, but I buy it, and I buy Mary’s too. She prophesied her position at the end of last season and reiterates it here: Matthew brought out a side of her (I smiled at “soft”—not a word that describes even happy-bride Mary) that was buried deep before, and has gone more deeply dormant now. What she needs is a good fight, and who better to clobber than Papa? Much better him than poor old Carson. The scene between Mary and Carson when she chided him for his familiarity broke my heart—and that’s how I know it was a good scene. It was one of the few where I had a genuine emotional reaction instead of a distanced, analytical one. And the thing is? I’m a viewer who wants to be drawn in and emotionally manipulated. Really. If I’m outside the story, picking, then your story hasn’t swallowed me. And I’m sorry to say that very little in this two hours truly swallowed me up. But it’s early days yet. We’ll see where things go.
What did you think? Favorite & least favorite bits? For once I’m not giving Best Line to the Dowager. It’s Mrs. Hughes, in response to Isobel’s “It’s none of my business”: “I never thought I’d hear you say that!”
Downton Abbey (which I’m discussing elsewhere so as not to put spoilers in Jane’s path) got me thinking about the man behind the curtain (or the woman, as the case may be)—the writer. My frustrations with that show have to do mostly with the way the writing is sometimes so very visible. Much of the conversation I’ve seen around the web today, including in my own post, is questioning decisions made by Julian Fellowes. In a way, he’s as much a character in the series as anyone on camera. We’re always aware of his fingers on the keys—this well-turned quip, that infuriating plot twist, this theme stated baldly and repeatedly by numerous characters until we feel bludgeoned by it.
It’s unusual, and therefore interesting, to see a show of this calibre (clearly there is something above-the-pack about Downton that keeps us all panting for the next episode, and has so many of us talking talking talking week after week) fail on a suspension-of-disbelief level with such regularity. We’re constantly thinking about the writing, and therefore the writer. This is seldom the case with other really fine shows I’ve been hooked on. Mad Men, for example—I hardly ever think about the writing while I’m watching it. Afterward, yes, generally with admiration, always with fascination.
The Wire: I don’t believe I ever once considered the people behind the curtain during the entire run of that show. I was pulled so thoroughly into the world that it became absolutely real. Sometimes I’ll see one of the actors in another role and get a jolt: but I thought you were still walking a beat in Baltimore!
LOST is an example of an excellent show which nevertheless featured The Writing as a supporting character. Indeed, there were entire seasons when I was pretty sure the writers had no idea where certain strands were going, and sometimes The Writing seemed to wander off into the jungle and be eaten by a polar bear. (I mean, that whole thing with ghostly Walt popping up now and then, after he’d been returned to the mainland—did they ever explain that? I have the feeling the young actor grew up too much over a hiatus and they had to just let the plotline fizzle away—which would be an event outside the story affecting the storyline.)
And yet I loved LOST (and still miss it), just as I have loved Downton, despite the enormous footprints The Writing leaves all over the house. (The poor housemaids, always having to clean up after it—and then it repays them by giving them the sack, or throwing their husbands in jail.)
The Downton incident that so many of us are bemoaning today is a particularly egregious case of The Writing leaping in front of the camera and announcing that it’s ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille. An off-camera, real-world decision by an actor seems to have annoyed The Writing, possibly outraged it, and it rummaged through the cupboard until it found a rusty old overused implement and flung it through the fourth wall.
As a writer myself, I like to ponder the people behind the curtain—after the fact. When the show’s over and I’ve emerged from its world, that’s when I like to imagine the discussions in the writers’ room or trace the artful seed-planting that bears delicious fruit somewhere down the line. Arrested Development is one of the best examples ever of a show whose writers are so perfectly invisible that I never think of them at all during an episode—and then afterwards, or four episodes later, or on the seventh viewing, I’ll find myself marveling at their skill, their cleverness, their patience (allowing a joke to bide its time and blossom half a season later). That’s a show in which the writers are never onstage, but upon recollection I’ll wish I could have been a fly on the wall when they came up with some of their bits. What I wouldn’t give for a YouTube clip of the day they came up with Bob Loblaw! Who thought up that name? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click the link; you have to hear it spoken aloud.) Did the rest of the team all fall out of their chairs laughing when one of them uttered it for the first time? Were they able to get any work done for the rest of the day or was it overthrown by helpless giggles?
The internet, of course, puts us all in closer contact with the creators of our books, television shows, films, and music. Many of you probably know me better than you know my books. And if you’ve read my blog for a while, it may be hard to approach my books without thinking of me, the writer, on the other side of the page. At least, that’s how it is for me when I open books written by people I know, either in person or online.
Sometimes this familiarity works in the writer’s favor, and sometimes it hinders full enjoyment of the work. Returning to LOST, for example: much as I loved that show, much as I hung on every next episode, I had an uneasiness in the back of my mind the whole time, because early on I’d seen a TED talk by J.J. Abrams, in which he told a story about buying a mystery box at a magic store as a kid—a box marked only with a question mark, so that you didn’t know what was inside until you took it home and opened it. He never opened his. He displayed it right there during his talk, still sealed up decades later. It held more meaning for him as a possibility, a mystery; he’d kept it as a talisman all those years, a symbol of the joy of the unknown. I listened to him describe this—it was early in Season 2, I think—and I thought, Ohhhh NO, he likes unanswered riddles. LOST had us up to our ears in unanswered riddles, and by golly I wanted answers; but knowing what I knew about one of the most powerful people behind that particular curtain, I no longer had confidence answers would be provided.
(And yet I dove eagerly into that quicksand pit of riddles week after week.)
With novels, it seems generally easier to tuck the writer back behind the curtain and forget about him or her. Not always, but usually, if the story is well told. This is probably because there are fewer variables; your novel’s characters can’t quit on you, or send unfortunate tweets, or be arrested for drunk driving. It’s only when a book has plot holes or something clunks that I’m back to thinking about the person behind the page. Sometimes it’ll even be the editor who draws my focus; I’m thinking: Why didn’t you catch that? This story didn’t start until chapter three, and it’s your job to break that news to the writer.
(Perhaps I think this because I’ve had the good fortune of working with truly excellent editors who perceive all things visible and invisible.)
It’s a strange age we live in. What I want as a writer is to be invisible on the page; I don’t want the reader thinking about me at all. I believe that if I’m doing my job right, you’ll have forgotten about me within a few paragraphs—or perhaps a few pages, if you know me with some degree of familiarity. And yet, as an author (i.e. writer of published books), I’m aware that my publishers expect, and my books’ survival may in part depend on, various kinds of visibility. And then I’m also a blogger, eight years in love with the form—a medium which is all about person-to-person sharing, and which sometimes brings me more direct satisfaction than my books.
(Am I allowed to admit that? It’s true, though. Most writers I know go on being critical of their own work long after it’s been published. Not to mention the blunt reality of things sometimes going out of print.)
So our various selves are all intertwined, these days: the reader, the writer, the viewer, the performer. I’m reading your novel on one screen and chatting about your hellish commute on another. I’m watching your movie and thinking about that perplexing remark you made in a blog post. I’m head over heels in love with your television show—and desperately wishing you’d written yourself out of this particular script.
Which I suppose is where my point is. I don’t mind the intertwined identities; in fact, I rather enjoy them, as long as they don’t affect the work. The more I respect your talent and skill, the less I want to think about you while I’m enjoying your art. I’ll eagerly go and hear you speak about it later—that’s a joy, hearing creative people discuss their work. But I don’t want to be in a writing workshop with every single creator I encounter. I don’t want to think about your writerly choices, and what drives them, not in the moment, not while I’m immersed in your work. Give me invisible craft. Let me believe, just for this hour, that there are no puppet strings, no hands pulling them. Let me believe there’s no one there behind that curtain—let me forget the curtain exists at all.
April 26, 2011 @ 7:09 pm | Filed under: Television
I’m bumping this up from the comments, because it’s too delicious a topic to dispense with quickly. We’d been discussing Upstairs, Downstairs, and I felt compelled to make a list of British costume dramas I have enjoyed. And by “enjoyed” I mean “squealed with giddy delight every week when I remembered it was time for another episode.”
I included films in the list, but for now I’ll just list the television shows, along with one or two others I forgot. These are in no particular order, unless you count “the way they happened to pop into my head” as an order.
First, the ones we’ve discussed here at Bonny Glen already:
• Lark Rise to Candleford (link) (And oh! We have a new one to watch tonight! Color me pleased as punch.)
Others we’ve enjoyed/are enjoying:
• Pride and Prejudice, which goes without saying. The gold standard.
• Berkeley Square. Victorian nannies, which: you had me at hello. Scott & I watched this many years ago—just the first season. Were there more?
• Garrow’s Law. Kathryn mentioned this in a list of recommendations (see below), and it was serendipitous timing because Scott and I had seen half an episode just the evening before—stumbled into it halfway through and were drawn in. We’ve now seen two more episodes and it has become one of my favorite shows. As Kathryn said: “nice 18th century twist on the legal drama (and based on a true story).” It’s like early Law & Order with knee breeches and powdered wigs. Be still, my heart.
• Life on Mars. An unusual police drama in the 1970s, but that’s still period drama. 😉 Modern-day detective goes back in time (or does he?) to the late 70s. A great deal of adult subject matter and violence, but brilliantly acted and quite gripping.
• The Railway Children. This was a TV movie, not a series. This one, from 2000, not the 1970 version. (Bit of trivia: the mother in the 2000 version was played by the same actress who played Bobbie in the original. Other bit of trivia, the 2000-version Bobbie was played by Jemima Cooper, who was the lead in Lost in Austen.) Anyway: I love this movie even more than I loved the book, which was a lot. Jemima’s Bobbie is a wonder.
Next, reader suggestions:
• Cranford (I seem to have watched some of this, but not all? We must revisit. I’ve read the book.)
• North and South — recommended by several commenters who noticed my affection for Brendan Coyle of Lark Rise and Downton Abbey. We’ve got it in our Netflix queue. I think it may be available on streaming?
April 25, 2011 @ 5:52 am | Filed under: Television
Well that was quick! I’m glad I saw Laurie’s comment about there being only three episodes before I watched the show. I hadn’t realized.
More surprises last night, and more than a few touching moments. I’m left feeling like there was at least one underdeveloped thread (Lady Percy) and one character who didn’t really have a growth arc (Agnes), and I want to see more, more, more of Rose and Hallam (who turned out to be a really interesting, layered character) and the rest. I absolutely loved the scene with the cook and the photographer. Delightful.