Downton Abbey thoughts, Season One

More even than being good, Downton Abbey is endearing. That’s apparent by the end of the very first episode, when despite having been introduced to approximately forty thousand characters in the space of 90 minutes, I realized I could place names to faces to personalities in nearly every case. It’s apparent at the beginning of episode two, when I reacted to once again hearing John Lunn’s marvelous theme music — a heartrending swirl and swell of emotion of a sort that the show itself isn’t even aiming for — with pavlovian enthusiasm. It’s apparent every time I laugh at one of the Dowager Countess’s understated overstatements like I was watching Holy Grail for the first time. It’s apparent in my forgiving the show for using as its central sex scandal a plot device swiped from The Golden Girls; or for making its one gay character a conniving, gossiping, backstabbing, predatory, vindictive creep, albeit in such a way as to suggest that these traits predominate and would do whether he was gay or not; or for never delving deeper into the hideous and hidebound class system than presenting it as a sort of culture-wide Stockholm syndrome, mutually agreed to by the benevolent dictators of the ruling class and the loyal, stand-up guys and girls in the servants’ quarters, before time and tide and the inevitability of change softly sweep it away, no harm no foul. It’s a show that makes itself easy for you to watch, and to enjoy.

Given how I’ve spent the past few months, that’s good enough for me. The way everyone went on about Downton Abbey, I expected it to be a searing examination of the relationship between the aristocracy and their servants. I was almost (not quite, but almost) relieved that I wasn’t getting, I dunno, The Wire with tonier accents, or Mad Men with even nicer suits. Instead it’s a soap. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I never miss an episode of The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless, so soapiness doesn’t bother me even at its soapy soapiest.

And this wasn’t that, after all. It’s a magnificently shot show, for one thing, with a remarkably firm grip on itself — its fast-paced yet crystal-clear editing rhythm and deft steadicam shots were present from the first minute, no growing pains here. Downton’s richly appointed rooms are almost always shot in such a way as to establish both their presence and the presence of a human being or two within them, not just driving home the perceived indissolubility of that relationship, but suggesting the influence these lavish spaces must have on those who inhabit them day in and day out. And pretty much no matter where you are, indoors or out, you’re looking at something that’s been beautifully lit — the lovely, torchlit country fair scenes couldn’t have looked and felt more likely a nice summer evening with friends if that’s what they actually were, just for example.

It’s a well-cast show, too. I don’t know why I tend to think of ensemble television shows first as a matter of casting rather than acting itself, but I do…I suppose it’s because so much of it comes down to the nature of the actor’s instrument, the way they look and sound, in addition to what’s done with it. Here you need look no further than Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. She looks like Large Marge post-wreck, or like some evil anthropomorphized insect; indeed her visual and aural resemblance to Lokar, Potentate of Thug Locusts is uncanny. But beyond the show’s Omar Little figure, you’ve got Carson’s Asterios Polyp profile, or Matthew Crawley’s astonishingly blue eyes, or Lady Sybill’s luscious lips and raspy voice, or Mrs. Padmore’s central-casting cookishness, or Mr. Bates’s stoic half-smile, or Lady Cora’s well-practiced beatific smile, or Lady Mary’s dark eyes that can sparkle with warmth or wit or cruelty depending on the needs of the moment, or the way Lady Edith smiles like someone who’s always vainly hoping to be something more than an also-ran, or Anna’s plain prettiness, and on and on and on.

All these details matter, I think. They’re a big part of what invests you in these lives, since nothing particularly earth-shaking is going on most of the time. They’re what make the behind-closed-doors meetings between Carson and Mrs. Hughes, a butler and a head housekeeper, feel less like middle managament and more like Commander Adama and President Roslin bonding on the Galactica. They made that pretty goofy sex scene between the handsome, horny Turk and mean-girl porcelain princess Lady Mary actually sexy, despite the silliness of it all. I’m pretty sure the hateful visages of Thomas and O’Brien — his smirk, her unsmilingness — are at least as responsible for our antipathy toward them as anything they actually did. (Thomas and O’Brien are the best character work on the whole show, by the way — a masterful depiction of how much worse two bad apples can be for the bunch than just one, how two malcontents or hatemongers can support one another and egg each other on until they become a nexus of poison at the heart of it all; I guarantee you you’ve seen this happen somewhere yourself.) They’re the reason that when Mary and Matthew finally kissed, I started clapping as I sat there watching it on the train. To reach a sum greater than the whole, you need the parts.

13 Responses to Downton Abbey thoughts, Season One

  1. Hob says:

    Pretty much agree with all that. But I’m not crazy about the usage of “soap” to mean just anything with melodramatic plot developments and a lack of deep social insight; that really describes 90% of entertainment since pretty much forever. Soaps got a reputation for cheesiness not just because of the melodrama, but because they were produced super-cheaply and super-fast so that the acting and direction were rarely more than adequate, and I don’t think that really fits DA (at least in the first season… sigh).

  2. “I’m not crazy about the usage of “soap” to mean just anything with melodramatic plot developments and a lack of deep social insight”

    I probably should have been more clear — that’s not what I meant. If you watch Y&R in particular, you have a very similar situation of dozens of characters, many of whom are members of “great families” and many of whom aren’t, bouncing off one another in a fixed geographical location, with storylines dominated by romantic entanglements often of the star-crossed variety and professional rivalries fueled by secret betrayals and backstabbing. That’s what I think of when I think of “soap,” more than just melodrama and lack of The Big Issues. I don’t think Downton’s cheesy in terms of either melodrama or (obviously) production values.

  3. DerikB says:

    Unfortunately Season 2 goes a little too far into melodrama and soapiness with rapid-fire plot twists that seem in too much of a hurry. They blow through WWI like it only lasted a few weeks.

    • Hob says:

      Yeah, I was groaning through a lot of season 2. I’m not sure if the more outré plot twists would’ve bothered me as much, or at all, if it had been better directed. A lot of it was just limp and weirdly paced (although I guess the latter might be partly due to drastic re-editing of the US version).

      But I think (most of) the post-finale Christmas episode was as good as the first season, so I’m glad I stuck with it.

      • DerikB says:

        Glad to hear the Christmas epidosde was good. Haven’t had a chance to watch it yet.

        Sean: There are a few plot twists in Season 2 that just needed more time than they were given and others that were just ridiculous. You get the feeling the writer (s? is it really just one guy) just has too many characters to deal with in too little time.

    • This is interesting to hear, because I was pretty impressed with how Season One handled the rapid flow of time. They kind of just used it as an excuse to blow past boring parts — if there was some new accusation against Bates, you only needed to watch them be revealed to one person, and then you’d see some scene with Lord Grantham talking about needing to deal with them without the show forcing us to watch them work their way up the whole food chain, that sort of thing. Fewer “getting to know you” scenes with Mary and Matthew, dealing with the entire Cora pregnancy storyline inside a single episode, etc. Looking forward to seeing how they maintain this, or don’t, in Season Two.

      Hob, the US version was re-edited? Why, to get rid of the commercial breaks?

      • Hob says:

        It’s a little confusing, there were conflicting reports about it, but the consensus seemed to be that they didn’t actually cut much in season 1, but did rearrange the order of some scenes to supposedly work better in the commercial-free combined-episode format. I have no idea if the same is true of season 2.

        • James says:

          No idea how much if anything is actually left out of the American versions after they do this, but PBS edits the show to fit 90 commercial-free minutes or more for its Masterpiece Theater format. So I know the first series of 7 episodes became 4 90-minute ones, and I assume they cut up series 2 in the same way.

  4. madeleine says:

    I am so happy to hear you mention Battlestar Galactica. I just finished watching Season 2 and the Christmas Special of Downton Abbey and now I’m slightly depressed that I have to wait for more. But then I though of Battlestar Galactica. There’s a show that is based primarily on the relationships between the characters. It doesn’t have the luxurious sets and costumes as Downton Abbey does, but it’s a damn good substitute for now. I’ve already started re-watching BSG. I may re-watch Downton Abbey from the beginning again too.

    I honestly thought I was going to hate this show, but yeah, those soap opera tricks really reeled me in. It doesn’t really count as a soap if it looks expensive, right?!

  5. Zom says:

    Personally I want to liberate the term soap opera and am happy to have the term applied, at least to some extent, to shows that I like a great deal: Mad Men, for example.

    Here’s why

  6. [...] the institutions that shored him up. Thus he went from a character I didn’t even mention in my discussion of Season One, during which his stalwart reliability rendered him a set more than a player, to one of my favorite [...]

  7. [...] pal Sean T. Collins wrote about the first and second seasons of Downton Abbey. As always, insightful [...]

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