Monday, February 20, 2012

Has Downton Abbey "Jumped the Shark?"

James Fenton seems to have been the latest “informed” writer to join the gang-up on Downton Abbey with his piece in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books entitled “The Abbey That Jumped the Shark.”  Assuming (perhaps rightly) than many New York Review readers are not up on Hollywood jargon, Fenton prefaced his piece with a definition from Wikipedia, explaining that jumping the shark refers to the beginning of “a decline in quality that is beyond recovery.”  (I am willing to accept this as a point of reference;  but was “quality” ever in the working vocabulary of any serious conversation in Hollywood?)

I am not convinced that Downton Abbey is all over except for the train wreck, so to speak.  The train metaphor is actually Fenton’s:

It’s a large sentimental contraption, coming at us, as the first trains came at us in the early Age of Steam, with a man in front, waving a red flag as if to say: you have been warned.

Still, when it comes to invective, I have to say that I much preferred Simon Schama’s description as “a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery.”  Nevertheless, predicting that trains will crash or tureens will spill may be premature.  The third season has already been announced;  and I suspect that public relations will work up a fervor of expectations at the prospect of seeing Maggie Smith go head-to-head with Shirley MacLaine (a bit of future planning that did not figure in Fenton’s argument).

To review the bidding once again, Fenton and Schama both come down on Downton Abbey by attacking the writing.  In Hollywood logic this amounts to appealing to “quality,” which means that, however valid the argumentation may be, the results really do not signify.  After all, the Golden Globes preferred Downton Abbey to Game of Thrones, probably because the latter was taking a far more ambitious approach to narrative.  More recently the final episodes of the second season of Downton Abbey had to go up against Luck, which seems to have found the sweet spot between a thoroughly imaginative conception of both character and plot and the nail-biting suspense of horse races.  This latter world has little interested in whether or not the vintage port is strained through a cloth napkin, and it would not surprise me if it turned out that every one of the characters is suffering from a peptic ulcer.  Is that how we shall all feel when Shirley MacLaine comes to the small screen to begin the “battle of the mothers-in-law?”

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