Wednesday, December 26, 2012

12 Favourite Things in 2012 #7 Downton Abbey

Although it is at the end of its third season in the UK (with that third season just starting broadcast in the US and Canada next month), I did not actually 'come to' Downton Abbey until 2012, when a friend recommended it to me as part of research into teaching serial format television. As often happens with things I later love, I was resistant at first, not thinking much of the first couple of episodes of season 1. I had decided to start at the beginning - and maybe that was the problem. I often enjoy coming into a series at any random place and getting "hooked", then backing up and making my way through. It comes from being a story editor, and wanting to love a show, before understanding why and how we love it. As a story editor, I also enjoy and often look for spoilers -- to get the trajectory, the full sense of what they are doing. So having now seen all three seasons, or series as they are called in the UK, and having read the spoilers for the 2012 Christmas episode which I will view in the next week or so, I feel I have a handle on the whole canvas that is Downton, as we know it so far. (Don't worry, no season 3 spoilers will be coming.)

What I have loved about the show is its absence of top-down hierarchy in character or star power, and this I believe is its greatest strength. Everyone is of equal interest; the narrative events and the reins of the emotional power of the show are equally distributed among its upstairs and downstairs people. That's quite an accomplishment, considering that actors like Dame Maggie are in the mix. The horizontal story focus allows us to invest equally in all kinds of characters. This can lead to unexpected juxtapositions of our real interest and focus, such as when, in the closing of 2011's Christmas episode, Anna seeing Bates taken off to jail packed more of an emotional punch than the declared pregnancy of Lady Sybil. 

I love the show, but I don't deeply admire it the way I do for instance, Borgen. (See Favourite Thing #5.) I have the feeling of it finding its way from season to season, with jumps and long gaps in the narrative line. That would be fine, if the emotional line of the series made up for it (as it does for instance in Laurence Anyways - see Favourite Thing #6). Joys and sorrows of characters' lives can take us by surprise, or not, but when considered more fully, should seem somehow to fulfill the drama. I'm not sure that is always the case in Downton Abbey. Its finest moments arise from its bristling humour (from Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton as duelling matriarchs upstairs, and Lesley Nicol and Phyllis Logan as the cook and housekeeper respectively, downstairs) and its capacity to embody the wry submission to inevitabilities that truly mark the aristocratic wit (captured best perhaps by Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael as Downton's eldest daughters). I confess, however, that I love its downstairs life best - and that is also where I believe the best character work is. Life at Downton is robust with emotional energy where the stakes are the greatest for day to day life. The day to day of Downton is in its kitchen, where the hearth holds the heart of the whole home.

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