Tag Archives: television

Downton Abbey’s unfulfilled potential

I gave up on Downton Abbey after two episodes this season: it was contrived and ludicrous, and when it wasn’t being silly, it was boring. And that’s coming from someone who has read more contrived and silly nineteenth-century novels than I can count.

But the other problem with Downton, a problem it’s had since the end of the first season, is that all of that fascinating revolutionary potential disappeared completely with the start of WWI. It was a very British sort of development–the Great War brings everyone together in British solidarity. I might even have bought that, if it hadn’t been quite so permanent. All the restlessness and class solidarity that seemed to be emerging downstairs in season one evaporated, never to return.

Over at the New Republic, Lili Loofbourow examines the ways the third season of Downton ran off the rails:

It lacks [Upstairs Downstairs’s] darkness, and if once upon a time Julian Fellowes’s decision to humanize the downstairs help seemed aimed at making viewers question an aristocratic institution, the show is now fully committed to making us root for Downton. Any notion that the estate is not a benevolent employer gainfully supporting hundreds of people—and an overall social good, if badly managed—is only acknowledged in passing. Back in the first season, Gwen the maid’s departure to be a typist seemed to herald broader horizons for the staff in a changing world. Gwen’s life was hard. We saw her getting up in the cold and struggling; life downstairs was unpleasant. That’s no longer the case. We don’t see the servants rising in the dark, or cleaning, or scrubbing. Instead, they’re waiting at table and doing ladies’ hair and eating together and having tea. Even their rooms seem less drab. When it comes to preserving Downton and the social order it represents, the servants and the family are literally on the same cricket team.

I might be able to forgive the politics and the melodrama if only it was fun melodrama. But I reached my limit for moping Bates and Matthew’s inexhaustible inheritance luck. And, though I haven’t seen the finale, I understand that likeable Irish revolutionary and former chauffeur Branson is now on his way to becoming a respectable capitalist. I give up.

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Narrative and fragmentation, part 2

More from the Times on the significance of narrative. Unlike Steve Almond’s grandiose account, Alissa Quart’s analysis of cable dramas emphasizes the individual, escapist benefits of narrative:

By pulling us away from Twitter, texts, e-mails, pointless videos and all the other technological distractions demanding attention, “Homeland,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” provide a coherent (albeit sometimes disturbing) refuge from our fragmented lives. I, for one, find a sense of narrative order, however fleeting, from these shows…

For many among today’s intelligentsia, television serials like “Homeland,” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” with their continuing fables of Alicia Florrick and Walter White, Don Draper and Carrie Mathison, occupy the cultural position of the Dickens tales that were famously doled out in monthly installments. (Except that spoilers are possible now in a way they were not in the age of Pip or Little Nell.) Narrative shows have become the entertainment of choice. And that’s because stories, not algorithms, give order to our hectic world.

In Quart’s account, narrative is pleasurable, rather than moral. Unfortunately, that description of the pleasures of narrative is accompanied by an elitism that makes it tough to take what’s she’s saying seriously. “Today’s intelligentsia” may find a comforting pleasure in narrative, but so, too, does everybody else. That’s why narrative is so powerful: because it provides comfort and entertainment to nearly everybody. To treat the cultural power of narrative as a function of intelligence or education is to misunderstand much of narrative’s attraction.

Class, privacy, and Jodie Foster’s rambling acceptance speech

Tenured Radical breaks down Jodie Foster’s Golden Globe speech, pointing out the privilege implicit in her emphasis on a certain kind of personal privacy.

I think if Bérubé were alive to day and had watched this speech he would have pointed out that Foster’s plea for privacy is something that only someone who is simultaneously rich and white, and speaking to a room full of people just like her, would find in the least plausible. By insisting that sexual privacy is normal, and then framing the alternative to privacy as starring in a reality show or developing a new fragrance, Foster showed complete obliviousness to the class and race privilege that structures her entire life. She also  demonstrated how little she understands about ordinary life in a time of economic and political crisis. No one who can’t pay for it has a shred of privacy, in part because of the corporations that fund Jodie Foster’s work and pay her bills and in part because we are living in a state of perpetual war. People of color, queer or not, rich or poor, can’t walk down the street, or into a store, or into their own apartment buildings, or drive down the street in their own cars without knowing that they can be stopped, frisked and arrested on suspicion of being a threat to public safety at any moment.

Where I live, lots of working class queer kids live their lives out in public because they have no homes at all.

I don’t have much to add to TR’s analysis, except that I think she let Foster off easy on her classism, particularly given Foster’s references to reality TV and Honey Boo Boo. Not only does the speech demonstrate an ignorance of the material lives of most Americans, but it makes some implicit claims about taste, class, and privacy that indicate something a bit more active than unexamined obliviousness.

Santigold’s New York and Lena Dunham’s “Girls”

I’m going to commit the grievous sin of talking about a TV show I haven’t actually seen: HBO’s Girls. Girls won a Golden Globe last night, and Lena Dunham beat out Amy Poehler and Tina Fey for best actress in a TV comedy or musical. As I said, I can’t speak to Dunham’s performance, but I do think that saying Fey, Poehler and the other nominees got Dunham through middle school may not have been the wisest or classiest way of acknowledging the competition.

Following up on the Golden Globes success, Santigold released a video this morning of a song written specifically for the Girls soundtrack, titled, appropriately enough, “Girls.”

It’s not my favorite Santigold song, but it’s catchy, and the huge cast of girls and women singing the song is engaging and fun to watch. What immediately struck me, though, is how broad and diverse this group of women is. Santigold’s New York, and it clearly is New York, is full of young people and old people, young people hanging out with old people, folks of varying racial backgrounds and socio-economic classes. And notably, it features lots of black folks.

If there’s one thing I know about Girls, even having never seen it, it’s that Girls does not feature many black people. Anna Holmes’s piece in the New Yorker last April started a debate about race and Girls that’s still raging, particularly now that Dunham has cast Community‘s Donald Glover as her black Republican boyfriend in the second season. Helena Andrews at The Root argues that Glover’s casting works, and that his character avoids tokenism.

To be honest, I’m not that interested in watching Girls, but I am interested in the discussions about race, privilege, class, entitlement, and creative labor that have been sparked by the show. Ultimately, I find Santigold’s New York considerably more compelling than what I know of Dunham’s Brooklyn, but it’s the contrast of the two that seems most striking.