Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Confrontation between PBS and HBO?

Time (and possibly a sense of irony) should soon tell if Brian Wheeler’s piece for BBC News this morning, “The US cult of Downton Abbey,” was premature.  Wheeler neglected to mention that, for those more interested in solid drama rather than sports, the second season of Downton Abbey got off to a good start because there was no real competition for that Sunday night slot.  Both Boardwalk Empire and Homeland had concluded their runs, and Mad Men is still in the distant future.  However, this past Sunday saw the beginning of Luck in that same slot on HBO;  and I, for one, will be very curious about what the numbers have to say.

Like many HBO viewers I took advantage of the opportunity for a “sneak preview” of the first episode of Luck about a month ago.  That left me undecided but curious;  and, in the interest of narrative continuity, I decided to give Sunday’s “official” broadcast of that first episode a second look.  To my delight that second viewing was more than powerful enough to hook me;  and, by all rights, I should not have been surprised.  Like Deadwood, Luck is a David Milch creation;  and, like its admirable predecessor, it is a slow starter.  However, also like Deadwood, the narrative makes instrumental use of language itself to advance the plot, not only to establish characters but also through subtle interrelationships between language and action that used to be a hallmark of David Mamet’s writing.  In other words, rather than worrying about the pace at which the plot unfolds, the viewer can relish a command of rhetorical twists and turns that make Maggie Smith’s one-liners on Downton Abbey sound like Joan Rivers in period costume.

Wheeler, of course, made appropriate reference to Simon Schama’s recent attack piece, giving Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton the opportunity to rebut.  The fact that her argument was that Downton Abbey is not a documentary means that she just did not get what was annoying Schama.  Readers know that I had my own issues with Schama;  but they had to do with his assertion that history “delivers the tonic of tragedy, not the bromide of romance.”  This leads me to wonder if Schama spent any time watching Deadwood, whose “tonic of tragedy” was more than a little bracing;  but, if he watched that series simply for the unfolding of events, he would have totally missed its literary value.

Luck promises just as much literary value, this time without the history.  This one is about the human condition in a present that gets harder to face by more people every day.  As such, it may not pose that great a challenge to Downton Abbey;  but that, in itself, is an irony.  Now we turn to PBS for escapism when the realities dished out by HBO are too hard to take.

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