It was Benjamin Disraeli who said, "How much easier it is to be critical than correct." It is with this caveat in mind that I say what I have to say here about the beloved - until now - Downton Abbey.
The PBS series appears to have lost its way
Yes, I’ve read and even tweeted that the premiere of Season 4 had the highest rating of any episode in the series so far. But with the possible exception of the last episode of Season 3, with its jarring, ill-timed killing-off of Matthew, the Season 4 premiere was a disappointment. It felt contrived and somewhat robotic in places, and when it was over I felt I had wasted two hours watching it. But you know how it is when you love something. You cut it some slack. After all, series creator Julian Fellowes had been thrown a nasty curve when Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley, refused to return for even one episode of Season 4. Killing him off so abruptly (and it seemed vengefully) at the end of Season 3 would require a lot of rewriting, new scenes and situations—the drag of Lady Mary’s depression weighing heavily not only on the family but the viewers too. So okay, I thought. We’ll give you time to sort it out. But let’s get things back on track by the second episode—okay?
Sadly, this did not happen. If you watched the Golden Globes on Sunday and have not yet summoned the episode from your TiVo hard drive, there will be no spoilers here. I will simply try to point out as discreetly as possible why I feel the series has lost its way.
It Is No Longer Giving the Audience Anything to Hope for
In the first three seasons, we were introduced a beautiful but flawed world just as it was about to fade from existence. The series did such an excellent job of bringing us into that world that we fell in love with it. We hoped that Lady Mary would not lose the inheritance that seemed rightfully hers, that her mother’s fortune given to the estate as dowry would not be handed over to a complete stranger, and that she and Matthew would find a way to work things out. We hoped Matthew had not been killed in World War I; and we hoped he would walk again. We hoped that Bates did not kill his awful first wife, that he would be freed from prison, that he and Anna would be united in lasting wedded bliss, and that the evil-doers would get theirs. We hoped Sybil would not die in childbirth and that Branson would be accepted into the family.
Three hours into Season 4, all of that is gone. Yes, we hope Lady Mary will be healed of depression and grief. But all the main drivers in the first three seasons have all been resolved. And no new ones have taken their place. We may hope for some resolution of the terrible thing that happened in this past week’s episode—that incident for which viewer discretion was advised—but this is not the hope of the earlier Downton. This is at best the hope for revenge. Which is on an entirely different level from the anticipatory hope this series has always managed to inspire in its viewers. Hope and inspiration. We Americans are keen on it. After all, we elected a president whose campaign turned on the inspiring message of hope for change.
The Inherent Limitations of the TV Series
As Art Form Have Begun to Drag It Down
Just as we know that death is a certainty, we know in advance that a television series is a limited art form. Unlike a film, whose purpose is to create a unified whole in which all the parts contribute something to the theme in a balanced and harmonious way, the purpose of a TV series is to string us along from one season to the next for as long as possible for the purpose of selling us soap. PBS operates on a different business model, but it does the same thing. It's selling us the world of Ralph Lauren, cruise lines, and itself. Probably the most egregious example of this is the ABC series, Lost, whose contrivances seemed to be a metaphor for what must have happened to the writers—and which eventually became fodder for Saturday Night Live.
It’s only when some enlightened consciousness is at the helm that a TV series manages to stop before it reaches the tipping point. The place where, as in Spengler’s Decline of the West, the high point of culture declines into mere civilization. This is why the 2002 six-part version of The Forsyte Saga is superior to the 26-episode version that began in 1967. The tighter arc made for a more rewarding experience. Poor Downton seems to be relying on our memory of the culture it established during the first three seasons to hold onto us in Season 4. It wants us to “keep on keeping on” for old times’ sake. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe the series will manage to halt its downward slide. And since I’ve loved the show from the beginning, I really do hope it manages to get itself found again.
Note to Self
As someone who is in the process of publishing a novel series, I look upon all this as a cautionary tale. Note to self: don’t hang on, stupid. Exit gracefully when the tale is done.
Jimmy Fallon to the Rescue
Since there is no more to be said on this for now—and since the last episode of Downton left me feeling so down—I have no choice but to call on Jimmy Fallon to set things right. Here he is with Episode 1 of Downton Sixbey, the hilarious 2012 spoof of our once beloved series.
Birthdays for Alvin Ailey & Diane Keaton; Oprah on Racism in Georgia; Plus Ally Pat's Anti-Eulogy of Hosea Williams, Also Born This Day
In my blog about A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, I was able to include a clip of mythologist Joseph Campbell explaining what Joyce meant by "aesthetic arrest." If you listen to the clip or read Joyce and think about your own experience, you will certainly see the truth in it. The last time I experienced this state of heart-stopping rapture was when Vermeer's The Girl with the Pearl Earring was on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. You walk into the place knowing you're going to see this painting. And even though you're expecting it, you are blown away when you finally see her. I've had this experience in Chicago with Sunday on la Grande Jatte and also while watching Judith Jamison dance. Even if you've seen a hundred ballets, nothing prepares you for her presence on stage. Notice that I speak in the present tense. Now 70, she has not danced for the Alvin Ailey company in decades. But the experience was such that it feels as if it is still happening in some kind of eternal present. Perhaps that's another aspect of aesthetic arrest - the way it takes you out of time even as it freezes a particular experience within time. Point being that there would have been no "Revelations" for Ms. Jamison to dance had there been no Alvin Ailey. In 2008, CBS put together the following short presentation on his life and extraordinary legacy. Since today marks the 83rd anniversary of his birth, there's no time like the present to watch it again.
A few weeks ago, I drove to Forsyth County, Georgia, to buy some vinyl recordings I saw on Craigslist. Even though it’s been 27 years since Oprah broadcasted an alarmingly vitriolic TV show on racism in that county, I still had qualms about traveling to a place where African-Americans were once so unwelcome you were not allowed to let the sun go down while you were there. If you watch Oprah, then you know she did a follow-up program on Forsyth County some years later, and things had changed dramatically. Nevertheless, I had to fight back the feeling that maybe I didn’t need to buy these old albums after all. Maybe I could find them on eBay and at a better price. This is part of what Faulkner meant when he wrote, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” If you have lived through something, it’s still in you, like the carbon-dating of trees. Sometimes you’re conscious of these memories, as I was that day when I fought back irrational fears and continued north into territory no longer known for its hatred of blacks. But sometimes these past memories are unconscious. They’re inside you driving your behavior in ways you don’t even realize. That’s what the stories in my novel series are about. This unconsciousness, as Jung once pointed out, is sin. I write stories to explore that.
I’m reminded of all this because today marks the 88th birth anniversary of Civil Rights Leader, Rev. Hosea Williams. During the heyday of civil rights in the 1960’s, Williams organized protests in Savannah, GA, and eventually came to the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who sometimes referred to him as his “bull in the china shop.” In the following years, he campaigned tirelessly for justice and equality. In 1987, it was Hosea Williams who led the protest marches into Forsyth County, which eventually brought international attention – and Oprah’s TV show. Williams also sought to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless—sound familiar?—and to this day the annual Hosea Feed the Hungry Program provides meals to thousands of people each Thanksgiving.
What follows is a 10-minute clip of Oprah's post-Forsyth reflections on what happened there in1987. After that, you'll see a radio interview with Hosea’s daughter, Dr. Barbara Williams Emerson, about her father’s life and accomplishments. The remaining two clips are from a sort of anti-eulogy, given by Hosea’s friend, Atlanta radio personality Ally Pat, during live coverage of Williams’ funeral. When I was a grad student in creative writing, one of our texts cautioned against writing that sounded like remarks made at a funeral. We want to remember the dead with kindness and respect. In doing so, we sometimes forget that they were once alive—with all the contradictions, trials and weaknesses the soul endures during its time here. A good story should tell the truth, something one never hears at a funeral. Except in this one instance. Years after Hosea’s funeral, people were still talking about the things Ally Pat said that day. We should all be so lucky.
Hosea Williams Funeral - Ally Pat's Anti-Eulogy
You know her. She was married to Michael Corleone in The Godfather. In 1977, she created a fashion craze and won an Oscar as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Eleven years ago, while in her late 50’s, she appeared nude in Something’s Gotta Give. Diane Keaton, who turns 67 today, just keeps getting more irresistible. Let’s hope Hollywood keeps writing scripts that will put her onscreen for years to come. Here's the trailer for Something's Gotta Give.
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