Wednesday Night Supper: A Wee Downton Abbey Interlude

Our eldest purchased Netflix for our family as his Christmas gift to us and it’s been a well-used, much appreciated gift. We’ve watched movies together but we’ve also each chosen different shows or films that reflect our own interests. People had recommended Downton Abbey to me for the last few years and so I thought I’d give it a go. A month into the new year, I’m in season 4 already. And it’s not really possible for me as a writer to watch such a show, especially in such an immersive way, without thinking about it in a writerly way.

I’ve been wanting to talk about this show in some way and it struck me that it could be a very Wednesday night supper conversation–and probably is in some real life version of Ithaca. But a blog also struck me as a worthwhile place for this kind of discussion.

I’m intrigued by the wide appeal of this show. Watchers of this show–lovers of this show–go beyond the usual Jane Austen period drama swooning crowd to include a surprisingly wide audience. One factor in this, I think, is the ensemble nature of the show. The same could be said for Friends or Seinfeld. Viewers can likely find one character to root for, one to roll their eyes at, one to dislike in an ensemble. There’s also a sense of relationship between the characters in such shows that somehow draws the viewer in–I haven’t had a Downton dream yet but I had a recurring dream, back in the day, that I was an actor on the show Friends. When a writer creates relationships between characters somehow that allows the reader or viewer to feel included, to be on an inside track, to feel they are part of something. And perhaps they (we) are: without the audience and without feedback from the audience, is the act of storytelling ever completely accomplished? I don’t think so.

The dialogue on Downton is superb, both upstairs and downstairs. There’s achingly terrific subtext among repressed characters but there’s also lovely formal diction that achieves gracefulness in relationships, smoothing over potential awkwardnesses. I wonder whether it has any relationship to early 20th century communication patterns or not.

While the variety of storylines–each deliberately given similar weighting–functions somewhat like multiple narrators, the moral centre of the show seems to shift as the characters themselves change and grow (or don’t change and don’t grow). I would trace the shift from Lord Grantham to Bates to Lady Mary as the central point of view character in the show.

Sometimes I wish there were more writers (The show was conceived and is written by one writer). There have been storylines and minor characters that have exasperated me. E. M. Forster talked about ’round’ and ‘flat’ characters in his book Aspects of the Novel. A flat character is one that can be summed up in a sentence, while a round character can surprise us with change, growth or unexpected aspects to his or her personality. (Think for instance of the Cheerful Charlies). While not every Downton character is a fully realized rounded character, some of the flat characters are less credible than others, and their storylines seem to take away from the stronger elements. Sometimes rounded characters are given flat storylines too: while Lady Sybil’s growth as a nurse fit her character and showed her growth, her courtship with Branson was a one-note, less believable plot line.

Another interesting (to me) feature of Downton Abbey is its pacing. It moves through history extremely quickly, particularly in the first two seasons. (This for me was a reason there was no excuse for silly melodrama: there was plenty of real drama to choose from both in that period and also in the vast scope of time the author gives the characters). A full-length story can take place over the course of a single day–think James Joyce’s Ulysses or the television show 24–or can be a sweeping epic lasting centuries. The pacing of Downton Abbey includes what is not shown, which is often the emotional aftermath of a significant event. The viewer is allowed (or forced) to fill in his or her own blanks in such instances.

Finally, and related to pacing, is the issue of story arc. Actors and even the show’s creator have suggested that Downton Abbey likely has another couple seasons left in it, while viewers want it to go on forever and ever and ever. But I’m not sure we really do. Every story has an arc to it–where the action rises to a climax and then falls to a conclusion. You know the experience of watching a movie and knowing that the story is nearing its end. While there are sudden cliffhanger endings and what’s called in music a coda, for the most part, we’re actually more satisfied when a story has an ending to it, one that suits the story. It doesn’t mean every detail is wrapped up–better not to, I’d say–but the central issue of the story is resolved. For Downton Abbey, I think the question is the transition from the old world to the new, and I think when that story is told, the series will, or should, come to an end. I picked up some Jane Austen fan fiction this winter, which followed the grandchildren of Elizabeth and Darcy, thinking it would be nice, light reading. Gentle Reader, it was not. It was instead rather dull, trying to extend something beyond its natural lifespan. Yes, the reader wants to know more about the characters at the end of the book and the viewers at the end of a series, but that is the lovely legacy of a story, that we can continue to imagine what happens to these people who have somehow become very real to us.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this series too.

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