Downton Abbey as Art: Some Thoughts on the Great Series

Television is rarely art.

A big part of that is because of how it is made, this is especially true in America.

American television is a business model made out of light entertainment, with the hope of reaching as much of the viewing population as possible.  While a creator may start with the spark of an idea, it is in the manufacturing of that idea where the art is lost; and business men take over, hoping to stretch an idea out for as long as possible, generating the highest quota of viewers and advertising sales. And through this process sadly creators can disappear (Consider Dan Harmon and Community, which I wrote about here), walking away (or forced away) from their own creations, their own babies.

To understand what I mean about art, consider one important element that makes a good novel art. It is not merely the initial idea, but the follow through from the beginning to the end, everything coming together to make a wonderful perfected whole, like a present with a bow on top. Television doesn’t have that, especially in America, and it is rare that any writer or even creator know what they are working towards. Don’t believe me? Remember when they gave an end date for the show Lost and everyone thought that was revolutionary?

So while a show might have a few great episodes, a few great seasons, it is rare you can step back and look at a complete package and say that is a well-told story from beginning to end.

The British probably get closer to art in television than the Americans and that is because a lot of the focus on the creation aspect is different.

Frankly, Americans deal with mass, the British focus on the idea, believing that a good idea will break through more than drowning the market with a product.

Many British shows are written by an individual or a creative unit, not a staff like American television (a staff that can be changed from year to year). The British do just enough episodes needed for the story to be told in the way everyone wants; the Americans have a number that has to be reached, usually around 24 (more or less).

Because of these differences, American shows may be easier to “consume,” but the British shows are more special. It is the difference between eating at McDonald’s, as compared to Olive Garden. That’s not to say Olive Garden is a high-end restaurant, but we all agree it is better than McDonald’s.

Julian Fellowes

Fellowes is a the Oscar-winning screenplay writer of Gosford Park, and when I heard he was making this series I was immediately intrigued; since it sounded like he  was focusing on the better elements of what made Gosford Park special (as compared to the throw-away mystery part).

He also writes every episodes, and when one considers the amount of characters and intersecting plots, it is quite an impressive feat. None of these characters seem to blend into each other (a sign always of lazy writing), each having their own distinct voice and motive. Each time an episode ends I am always breaking down in my head (being the old English student) how he is doing it and where he might be taking a story. (Sometimes I am right, I am more happy when I am not.)

For the writing achievement alone, this series should be honored by writers. The only thing I can think close to comparing this achievement to is when Charles Dickens used to issue his novels chapter by chapter for the masses. He also had a large collection of characters and plots to play with, of course for Fellowes his also find life in actors.

Talking about Season 2

This may seem odd, but I am going to skip Season 1 and focus on  Season 2. See, what I really respected about Season 2 is how Fellowes took what could be considered some of the weaker characters from Season 1 and “tweaked” them, making them the best part of that new season.

Consider, for example, the villains of Season 1, Thomas and Sarah. To be honest, all they were missing in the first season was an evil laugh and wicked black mustaches. But in the second season, that was all fixed, with each growing over the course of the series because of the war. And they weren’t the only ones “fixed” in that season. I would also argue that Lady Edith and Daisy also saw benefits in the return. That is just spectacular writing, and almost makes me wonder if Fellowes was planning to do this all along… Can you see that I am fawning over this show?

Sadly, Season 2, besides some great character development, did have a few missteps along the way. One that I still kind of shake my head over was Episode 6. Do you remember this one? It was when a potential “heir” to the estate returns. I’m not sure if this is something he will bring back later (with a writer like Fellowes it is a possibility), but it felt so out of sorts. And the way all of the characters treated the possible “Patrick,” just didn’t jive for me with the rest of the overarching story.

The Class System

Oh, P.G. Wodehouse, you have ruined me!

Why is it every time I encounter a story about the class system in England I immediately think of the brilliant Jeeves and his less-than-brilliant master, Bertie Wooster. I look for those relationships, and sometimes I am even disappointed when I don’t see them emerge. So in dealing with the class system here (which is a big focus of the series), it frankly took a little mental adjusting for me. Both sides in this show have their geniuses and idiots, their good and bad. This is not the world of P.G. Wodehouse… so far.

It does make me think however, that we Americans may be watching this show different from our British friends. Consider this, much of American literature, when dealing with class, is focused on someone rising or falling. This is thanks mainly to the popularity of Hortaio Algers, Jr. so long ago; he invented in many ways the “American Dream” that we still hold dear today. And in that dream is a desire to change, to grow out of one’s station. In British literature (and, yes, shows like Downton Abbey), it is emphasized again and again the importance of knowing and accepting where you belong.

One example that always makes me laugh about this (even though it first made me feel uncomfortable) was in a Red Dwarf episode. (Yes, I am discussing Red Dwarf in a Downton Abbey essay; stick with me, there is a good point at the end). Have you ever seen the one when Kryten became human? I won’t discuss it too much here, but Lister gave a long speech to Kryten about knowing your place (he spoke about the horror of once entering a wine bar when he should be in a pub), and in the end Kryten is convinced that he was not meant to “rise.” Yes, an American audience feels that Kryten should stay human, but for the British viewers maybe Lister was right all along.

So do we Americans cheer for people to rise in their stations, while the British audience just watches for the characters on the different levels? Did they cheer on Tom like we did when he seduced Sybil, moving from chauffeur to something grander? Or should we have been startled like the characters were (and continue to be)?

Downton Abbey to me is like opening a great old novel, one slightly covered by dust, but filled with characters that you want to visit again and again. I relish that such a product could have been made for television… Maybe TV can become art someday…

I am done fawning now, I promise.

If you liked reading my article (and maybe my book in process), why not check out some of my published books? I had two novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen DaydreamMy Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an ebook on Google eBooks here.  Thanks for reading!

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14 responses

  1. Pingback: Five Things I Am Into Right Now, October 2012 « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  2. I was drawn to read your blog because I am in the middle of watching the entire Downton series at the moment. I have heard criticism that the characters below stairs would never interact with their employers above stairs in the way that they do. So what? I enjoy it for what it is – a bloody good, and I think, well written TV drama series. I found your comments on the differences between American and British audiences very interesting. Nice post. x

    • Thank you. I’m glad you liked it. To be honest, I couldn’t say exactly about how the interactions would have been above and below the stairs (character-wise it did change from Season 1 to 2 because of the war, they all bonded; so it does make sense to me). I will say that my wife’s grandmother would have been one of the workers below the stairs in such a home, so there is a personal aspect to the watching for us.

      Thanks again!

  3. Pingback: The Folio Society: Celebrating Literature « The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  4. Reblogged this on The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard and commented:

    Tonight on PBS Masterpiece Theater, the third season of Downton Abbey begins. It’s been fascinating reading some of the articles leading up to the premiere. For example, a lot of critics seem to dismiss the second season. I think that is harsh. (Heck, critics also like to attack the new Hobbit movie. Seriously, what do people expect? Both series are not going to change! They are what they are; and I think they are great). Of course, it can be argued that critics (and it should be) need to find something to write about. It’s their job, and controversy will always bring in readers over a nice little pat-on-the-back article… which I guess this one is! I hope you enjoy the new season.

    • To be honest, I got through a few episodes of it, and then I heard about how the show/network treats its producers and writers. Even this year, they fired the current guy in charge of it. So I have some misgivings there because of it (One of the great things about DA is the entire thing is born from one writer/one mind). Who knows though? Right now, my obsession is Doctor Who. Man, I wish I could have created that character!

  5. My wife and I already watched all of season 3 via the Internet. It’s an amazing season and goes places you may not expect. I have to keep my mouth shut about season 3 for a while, but I’m expecting a lot of posts about it.

  6. Pingback: The Posts of an Anglophile | The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

  7. Pingback: Five Things I Am Into Right Now, October 2015 | The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard

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