DOWNTON ABBEY AND THE PECULIAR GLORY OF BRITISH DRAMA

October 13, 2011

SO… YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD SOME HUB-BUB IN RECENT WEEKS, BUT HULK TELLING YOU IT’S ABSOLUTELY TRUE:

DOWNTON ABBEY IS FANTASTIC.

SO MUCH SO THAT IT PREVENTED HULK FROM DOING A NUMBER OF PRODUCTIVE THINGS THIS PAST SUNDAY. HULK MERELY SAT DOWN TO CHECK OUT THE FIRST EPISODE… 7 HOURS LATER… WELL, YOU GET IDEA.

OH, BUT HULK CAN SEE YOU SITTING THERE ROLLING YOUR EYES. ANOTHER POSH, PERIOD-PIECE, BRITISH MINISERIES? HOW REVOLUTIONARY! OR IF YOU’RE NOT INTO THE WHOLE SARCASM THING THEN IT’S HOW DULL. THERE’S SUCH A FUSS MADE OVER THE DRAMATIC OUTPUT OF BRITISH MOVIES AND TELEVISION SHOWS AND THEIR STUFFINESS AND THEIR COSTUMES AND THEIR, UM, YORKSHIRE CUMMERBUNDS… HULK HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THE CORRECT NOUNS ARE BUT YOU GET THE IDEA. THE POINT IS THAT HULK GUESSING A HUGE PORTION OF HULK’S READERS ARE ABOUT AS INTERESTED IN MASTERPIECE THEATER AS THEY ARE A SEQUEL TO 27 DRESSES. WHICH IS A SHAME ACTUALLY… NOT THE 27 DRESSES PART, BUT THE MASTERPIECE THEATER THING.

SO ALLOW HULK TO GET THE POINT, WHICH IS TWO-FOLD. 1) THE FIRST IS CONVINCE THE EYE-ROLLING CYNICS THAT DOWNTON ABBEY IS THE KIND OF GREAT WORK THAT ANYONE WHO CLAIMS TO LIKE MOVIES OR TV SHOULD BOTH WATCH AND FULLY ENJOY WITH NO RESERVATIONS. HULK RELATIVELY AGREES WITH YOUR DISPOSITION ON THE GENRE, BUT THAT SHOULD NEVER, EVER BE PREVENTATIVE. THE SHOW IS SIMPLY REMARKABLE. AND 2) JUST BECAUSE IT IS GOOD DOESN’T MEAN THERE ARE NO DEEPER QUESTIONS TO BE ASKED ABOUT WHY WE LIKE BRITISH PERIOD DRAMAS SO MUCH.

SO HULK’LL JUST FREAKIN ASK THAT QUESTION: WHY THE HELL DO WE AMERICANS GO SO NUTS FOR BRITISH PERIOD DRAMA?(1)

IT CAN'T ALL BE THIS GUY

IT ACTUALLY BRINGS WITH IT A WHOLE OTHER SLEW OF QUESTIONS THAT PERHAPS SOME READERS COULD ANSWER BELOW: DOES THE U.K. PRODUCE SOMETHING INHERENTLY “BETTER” OR IS IT MERELY OUR PROJECTION? IS THE U.K. AWARE OF OUR LOVING PROPENSITY FOR THEIR STUFF? DO THEY WONDER WHY WE HAVE THIS ADORATION? DOES THE U.K. IN TURN REVERE THEIR OWN CAPACITY FOR DRAMA IN THE SAME WAY THAT WE DO? OR IS IT LIKE THE OLD SIMPSONS JOKE GOES WITH BRAZIL NUTS (“WE JUST CALL THEM NUTS HERE”)? TO THEM, IS IT “OUR BRITISH DRAMA” OR JUST PLAIN DRAMA?

SOME OF THESE QUESTIONS ARE A LITTLE SILLY, BUT THERE IS NO DENYING THAT WE AMERICANS VIEW THE BRITISH PERFORMANCE AND CREATIVE WORK AS SOMETHING SPECIAL AND QUITE UNIQUE. SURE, THE TRAINING AND CRAFT IN ENGLAND IS SERIOUS, SERIOUS BUSINESS, BUT TRUST HULK WHEN HULK SAYS THAT THERE ARE JUST AS MANY REPUTABLE TRAINING ESTABLISHMENTS ALL OVER THE WORLD. BUT IT IS AS IF WE BELIEVE THAT BRITISH ACTORS HAVE THIS INHERENT CAPACITY FOR UNRIVALED DIGNITY AND GRACE, A MAGICAL SOMETHING WHICH IS NOT GIVEN TO US MERE AMERICAN MORTALS. THE MAGIC SEEMS TO BE  ELUSIVE, BUT WE DESCRIBE THESE SUPERLATIVE ACTING TRAITS IN FOLLOWING WAYS: AUSTERE, REPRESSED, QUIET, ORNATE, DIGNIFIED, REGAL, BROODING… WHICH ALL SOMEHOW EQUALS “BETTER.”

IT’S ALMOST RIDICULOUS. THERE IS THIS UNCANNY WAY WE JUST INHERENTLY ACCEPT BRITISH PERIOD DRAMA AS THE PINNACLE OF EXCELLENCE REGARDLESS OF ACTUAL QUALITY. WE INSTANTLY EQUATE ANY PRODUCTION WITH “HIGH BROW” JUST BECAUSE IT’S ALL FANCY OR SUMPTHIN. THESE WORKS ALWAYS SEEM TO BE NOMINATED FOR/WIN THE BIG YEAR END AWARDS EVEN WITH VERY LITTLE LARGE-SCALE CULTURAL PENETRATION. AND WE’RE SO QUICK TO CALL EVERY BRITISH ACTOR “BRILLIANT” AND “INTELLECTUAL” WHEN REALLY THEY’RE JUST, LIKE, TALKING WITH A BRITISH ACCENT. FUCK, AMERICANS WILL ACTUALLY GO SO FAR AS TO ACCEPT THE VALIDITY OF ANYTHING TAKING PLACE IN ANY COUNTRY OR TIME PERIOD SO LONG AS THEY’RE SPEAKING WITH BRITISH ACCENTS. YUP, WE’LL SUSPEND OUR DISBELIEF JUST FINE AS LONG AS IT’S NOT OUR UGLY AMERICAN VERNACULAR!(2)

JOAQUIN: SHOULDN'T WE BE SPEAKING LATIN? CROWE: FUNNY STORY, WE SHOULD ALL ACTUALLY BE SPEAKING GREEK. YOU SEE...(2A)

NOT EVERYONE IS ON BOARD WITH THIS THINKING OF COURSE. THE OBLIGATORY LAUDING OF BRITISH DRAMA IS ACTUALLY WHY MANY PROGRESSIVE AMERICAN CRITICS RAIL AGAINST IT. A LOT OF THIS IS DUE TO THE FACT THAT MOST PROGRESSIVE CRITICS HAVE A BITCH OF A TIME PROVING TO OTHER “SERIOUS” CRITICS THAT GENRE FARE CAN WAY MORE TRANSGRESSIVE, INTERESTING, COMPLEX, AND HIGH BROW THAN ANYTHING THAT THE PERIOD PIECES, PBS, THE BBC, AND BRITISH CINEMAS HAS TO OFFER. AND HULK COUNTS HULK-SELF AMONG THESE SORTS OF CRITICS.(3) BUT THERE IS ALSO A POINT WHERE HULK AND THE REST OF THE PROGRESSIVE CRITICS MUST NOT GO TOO FAR AND DISMISS SOMETHING FLAWLESS AS “BORING.”

BUT BRITISH PERIOD PIECES ARE A ACTUALLY A GENRE LIKE ANY OTHER AND THEY RESONATE FOR GOOD REASON. THE TRUTH IS THERE IS A VERY SIMPLE MECHANISM THAT MAKES BRITISH DRAMA WORK SO WONDERFULLY. SO WHAT IS IT? IS IT THE STODGINESS? DO WE LOVE TO WATCH THE REPRESSION? COULD IT BE MERELY THAT IT IS SO DIFFERENT FROM OUR OWN SENSIBILITIES? WHY DO WE LOVE IT SO?

TO HULK THE ANSWER IS ALMOST OBVIOUS.  THE APPROACH TO DRAMA IN THE BRITISH PERIOD PIECE IS, BELIEVE IT OR NOT, ONE OF THE EASIEST WAYS TO DO EFFECTIVE DRAMA:

IT IS THE ART OF BEING WITHHOLDING.

FOR THE SAKE OF CLARITY, BEING WITHHOLDING WORKS LIKE THIS: TELL PEOPLE THEY CAN’T HAVE THIS TOTALLY AWESOME THING IN YOUR HANDS AND  ALL THEY WILL EVER WANT IS THAT TOTALLY AWESOME THING IN YOUR HANDS…. THAT’S IT. BRITISH DRAMA JUST DRESSES UP THE DYNAMIC ALL FANCY-LIKE!

THINK ABOUT IT. UNDERNEATH THE POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE AND WIT AND, UM, PETTICOATS, THERE IS AN STRUCTURE TO BRITISH DRAMA THAT USUALLY CONTAINS THE FOLLOWING: TWO PEOPLE ARE IN LOVE (OR HATE EACH OTHER. HATE WORKS TOO). THEY KEEP THE WORDS AND FEELINGS BOTTLED UP, USUALLY DUE TO CLASS CONCERNS OR PROPRIETY. PUBLICLY, THEY SHOW EACH OTHER COURTESY AND GRACE. THEY TELL THEIR STORIES WITH LONGING LOOKS AND UNSAID GLANCES. THE SLIGHTEST BITS OF CONFUSION AND MISGIVINGS LEAD TO DOUBTS. THE LOVE ALWAYS SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE. SO WHAT DOES THE VIEWER THEREFORE WANT? WE WANT TO SEE THEM RUN UP TO EACH OTHER AND KISS AND MAKE BABIES RIGHT THERE ON THE DRAWING ROOM FLOOR… MAKE FUN OF IT ALL YOU WANT, BUT THE EFFECT IS BOTH UNDENIABLE AND, IF YOU CAN APPRECIATE THE JOY OF SIMPLE EXECUTION, BEAUTIFUL.

IT MEANS WE ACTUALLY WATCH BRITISH DRAMA FOR THE TIMES THEY ARE NOT REPRESSED.

WE WATCH THE KINGS SPEECH FOR THE TIMES HE SWEARS.  WE WATCH PRIDE AND PREJUDICE TO SEE THE ERUDITE AND BASHFUL MR. DARCY DECLARE HIS LOVE. WE WATCH REMAINS OF THE DAY FOR ANTHONY HOPKINS’ QUIET DECLARATIONS OF FEELINGS. WE WATCH BRIDESHEAD REVISTED FOR CHARLES RYDER’S QUIET DECLARATION OF FEELINGS FOR SEBASTIAN…. OKAY, SO WE MOSTLY WATCH BRITISH DRAMAS FOR QUIET DECLARATIONS OF FEELINGS, BUT AGAIN, THAT’S BECAUSE THIS DEVICE IS STARTLINGLY EFFECTIVE. YOU CAN DISMISS IT, BUT HULK AND EVERYONE ELSE ARE NOT “CHUMPS” BECAUSE WE LIKE IT. TO DENY ITS EFFECT IS TO DENY YOUR OWN HUMANITY. THE REPRESSION TRIGGERS SOMETHING IN US. A SUBLIME LONGING AND EMPATHY. AND THEN IT OFTEN COMES TOGETHER WONDERFULLY.

WHICH BRINGS US BACK TO DOWNTON ABBEY.

OH, DO GO ON....

THE SHOW UNDERSTANDS THIS DYNAMIC AND USES IT TO SUCH EFFECT AS TO STIR YOU DOWN INTO YOUR DEEPEST HEART… AND POSSIBLY LOINS. BUT THAT’S NOT ALL! THE SHOW ACTUALLY HITS THE MARK WITH EVERY SINGLE THING THAT IT DOES. EVERY CHARACTER IS IMPECCABLE AND FULLY-REALIZED. RELATIONSHIPS ARE TEXTURED, EARNED, AND FOCUSED. THE ATTENTION TO DETAIL IS REMARKABLE. NOT JUST THE INHERENT PERIOD DETAIL, BUT DETAIL OF CHARACTERIZATION.

THERE IS A WAY THIS PERFECTION MAY SEEM BORING TO SOME, AFTER ALL, THE TRAITS THAT MAKE DOWNTON ABBEY GOOD ARE MANY OF THE SAME TRAITS THAT HAVE MADE MANY OTHER BRITISH PERIOD DRAMAS GOOD (THE SHOW IS EVEN WRITTEN AND CREATED BY JULIAN FELLOWES, WRITER OF THE SUPER-GREAT ALTMAN FILM GOSFORD PARK), BUT THERE ARE A WHOLE SLEW OF OTHER THEMATIC ASPECTS THAT TRANSCEND THIS PERFECTION TO ALSO MAKE IT UNIQUE.

FOR ONE, DOWNTON IS ACTUALLY CONCERNED WITH THE DISSOLUTION OF THIS PRIM AND PROPER ERA. SET AGAINST THE BUILDUP TO THE GREAT WAR, THE FIRST SEASON DELICATELY SEWS THE SEEDS FOR HOW MUCH OF THIS REPRESSION IS ABOUT TO BE TORN APART BY THE STAKES OF MODERNITY. IT ACTUALLY TAKES ON THE CHARACTERISTICS OF MANY OF THE GREAT WESTERNS BEING ABOUT “THE END OF THINGS” (FOR EXAMPLE, DEADWOOD). AND THE SHOW’S SCOPE AND INSIGHT INTO THE NUANCE OF CLASS DIFFERENCES IS WHOLLY REMINISCENT OF THE GREATEST TV SHOS EVER, THE WIRE. TO BOOT, THE SHOW MAKES BRILLIANT USE ONE OF HULK’S FAVORITE WRITING TOOLS, AND THAT IS HOW TO WRITE HOW TO WRITE CHARACTERS WHO ARE “SECRETLY GOOD,” MEANING IT UNDERSTANDS THAT THERE ARE WAYS IN WHICH EVERYONE HAS AN INNATE GOODNESS TO THEM, IT JUST LARGELY DEPENDS ON THE SITUATION AND CONTEXT. HOW ARE ALL THESE COMPARISONS NOT ENTICING TO YOU?

PLUS, THE SHOW HAS MAGGIE SMITH STILL CHUCKING IT LIKE 99 MPH.

THIS IS ACTUALLY A GREAT MICROCOSM FOR THE WHOLE WAY WE REGARD BRITISH DRAMA AS BOTH BRILLIANT AND BORING. WE ALL KNOW MAGGIE SMITH IS GREAT, RIGHT? OF COURSE WE DO. AT THIS POINT SHE IS BORING IN HER GREATNESS. WE UNDERSTAND THIS GREATNESS SO COMPLETELY THAT WE TAKE IT FOR GRANTED. DOWNTON ABBEY EVEN HAS HER IN ALL-TOO-FAMILIAR ROLE OF THE BEHIND-THE-TIMES, SNOOTY, UPTIGHT, DRYLY-HILARIOUS MATRIARCH. HECK IT’S HER SAME EXACT ROLE FROM GOSFORD PARK AND THE ONE THAT MADE HER LATE-CAREER RESURGENCE.

BUT YOU CANNOT DENY THAT SHE ABSOLUTELY DESTROYS THIS ROLE, REMINDING YOU EXACTLY WHY WE WENT SO NUTS FOR HER WORK IN THE FIRST PLACE. TO WIT, WATCH HER IN A MEETING WITH HER LAWYER / DISTANT FAMILY MEMBER:

HULK DOES NOT MEAN TO TRY “EXPLAIN THE JOKE” AND BEAT YOU OVER THE HEAD WITH WHY THIS IS EXACTLY SO GOOD, BUT IT IS PRECISELY THE KIND OF SCENE THAT UNDERSTANDS THERE IS SO MUCH TO SUBTLY DO WITH A CHARACTER’S RANGE. IT WOULD BE SO EASY TO WRITE HER HAS ONE-NOTE-GRUMPY, BUT HER DISPOSITION SEEMS TO FLIP AND ALLEVIATE AT A MOMENTS NOTICE. THIS ISN’T JUST “KEEPING IT LIGHT” BUT UNDERSTANDING THAT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO HER CHARACTER IS DIGNITY, THUS SHE WILL PRESERVE IT IN WHATEVER WAY SHE CAN. THE SHOW KNOWS HOW TO GIVE CHARACTERS RANGE AND YET STAY COMPLETE WITHIN THEMSELVES. THIS IS WRITING AT PERFECTION.

BUT GREAT CHARACTERIZATION AND THEMATIC INTERESTS ASIDE, THE SHOW ULTIMATELY COMES BACK TO KNOWING EXACTLY HOW TO EXECUTE THE QUIET ART OF BEING WITHHOLDING. IT IS THE EMOTIONAL CORE OF THE SHOW, WHICH IN TURN BRINGS US BACK TO THE MATTER OF “WHY BRITISH DRAMA WORKS.” HULK ARGUES THE DYNAMIC AT PLAY HERE IS NOT JUST A HUMAN ONE, BUT ONE UNIQUELY BOUND TO OUR TWO CULTURES.

THINK ABOUT IT.

WE AMERICANS WATCH THESE PERIOD PIECES AND WE EMPATHIZE WITH THESE REPRESSED CHARACTERS BY PROJECTING OUR AMERICAN SENSIBILITIES ONTO THEM. WE IMBUE THE STODGY BRITISH WORLD OF YESTERYEAR WITH OUR MODERN COLOR AND VITALITY. WE LOVE TO WATCH THEIR EMOTIONALLY-CONFINED ENGLAND BECAUSE WE SO DESPERATELY WANT TO TURN IT INTO OUR AMERICA. OF COURSE, JUST BECAUSE WE WANT THAT TO HAPPEN DOESN’T NECESSARILY MAKE IT SO. THE PLOTTING DOES NOT REACT TO OUR BLISTERING EXPECTANCY AND INSTEAD DERIVES ITS DRAMA WITH DEMURE REFUSALS. THIS IS THE ART OF QUIET DRAMA, ONE WHOLLY CREATED WITHIN OURSELVES AS AUDIENCE PARTICIPANTS.

"MAKE OUT, MAKE OUT, MAKE OUT, MAKE OUT..."

AGAIN, THE TIME HONORED ART OF BEING WITHHOLDING. WHAT’S FUNNY ABOUT THIS IS THERE ARE MANY WAYS THAT AMERICAN DRAMA IS FAR MORE COMPLEX, MESSY, AND NUANCED, BUT THIS IS RARELY RECOGNIZED. BRITISH “HIGHBROW” DOMINATES OUR IDEA OF WHAT CONSTITUTES THE PINNACLE OF DRAMA. WHICH MAKES IT EVEN WEIRDER THAT AMERICAN WRITERS FORGET HOW WELL THIS BRITISH MODEL WORKS AND CAN’T HAVE TWO LOVEBIRDS JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP FOR A SECOND. THEY COMPLETELY EXPUNGE EVERY OUNCE OF EFFORT TRYING TO GET YOU TO LIKE THEIR CHARACTERS, THAT THEY COMPLETELY FAIL TO REALIZE WE SHOULD BE CRAVING THE BEHAVIOR THEY CONSTANTLY GIVE US. WE WANT THEM TO CRAVE THE MOMENTS WHERE THE CHARACTERS AREN’T REPRESSED.(4) BUT RATHER THAN STIR OUR DESIRES, WE AMERICANS CREATE MOVIES WHERE DECLARATIONS OF LOVE AND FLIRTATION ARE SUNG TO THE RAFTERS, ECHOED NEAR AND HIGH AND ALL OVER THE WORLD. WE GIVE THEM MEAL AFTER MEAL OF ICE CREAM.

WHICH IS PROBABLY YET ANOTHER REASON WE TURN TO BRITAIN. WE CRAVE A CINEMATIC REALITY FAR DIFFERENT FROM OUR OWN. AND WHO KNOWS? MAYBE IT’S THE OPPOSITE IN THE U.K. PERHAPS THIS REPRESSIVE QUALITY IN THE BRITISH DRAMA IS “TOO FAMILIAR” AND THEY THEY LOOK TO THE BOMBASTIC AMERICAN FILM TO PROVIDE THE EXUBERANCE THEY WANT (THIS IS ONE OF THE REASONS BRITISH COMEDY IS SO DAMN IRREVERENT. THERE IS AN OVERWHELMING DESIRE TO BREAK RULES). SO IS THIS A TWO-WAY STREET?… HULK ASKED TO HULK’S U.K. READERS… COUGH, ANSWER DOWN BELOW, COUGH.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OUR TWO CULTURES IS NOT JUST SOCIOLOGICAL, BUT HISTORICAL. NOT JUST IN THE WAY AMERICA LOOKS TO ENGLAND AS REPRESENTATION OF ANCESTRY AND ENGLAND LOOKS TO US AS A REPRESENTATION OF THE UNCHARTED FUTURE, BUT IN THE WAY OUR HISTORY INFORMS OUR PERSONALITIES: AMERICA BEING AN ENDLESS STRETCH OF LAND, WITH THE PROMISED RIGHT TO MANIFEST DESTINY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. AND THEN THERE IS ENGLAND, THE TINY ISLE OF YESTERYEAR’S EMPIRE, ONE WITH LONG LONG-STANDING WALLS AND CLEARLY ESTABLISHED STAKES IN LIFE. THERE IS AN OBVIOUS DEGREE TO WHICH WE’RE NEITHER AS MUCH OF ONE AS WE THINK WE ARE, BUT THIS IS EXACTLY HOW WE CREATE THE “MODERN” CONFLICT. FOR AMERICA, THE PROMISE OF UNBOUND HAPPINESS GIVES RISE TO UNSATISFIED MALAISE. FOR ENGLAND, THAT PESKY THING CALLED LIFE SEEPS IN TO THIS CENTURIES-OLD ORDER, GIVING RISE TO HUMANE CHAOS.

THESE DIFFERENCES ARE VITAL BECAUSE THEY DEEPLY INFORM WHAT ATTRACTS US TO THE OTHER. WE WATCH BRITISH PERIOD PIECES FOR AN IMPLICIT, EMOTIONAL UNDERSTANDING OF HOW WE ONCE BROKE OUT OF THE RULES AND “MADE OURSELVES AMERICAN.” CONVERSELY, AMERICAN FILMS OFFER THEM… UM… WELL, WE BLOW UP ALIEN ROBOTS AND SHIT.

WHATEVER. EVERYONE NEEDS A THING.

OF COURSE HULK IS JUST LOOKING AT A VERY SMALL PORTION OF BRITISH AND AMERICAN FILMS AND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE TWO. CINEMA IS TOO WILD, DIVERGENT, AND PERSONAL TO BE SO DAMN SPECIFIC. HULK SORT OF FEELS DUMB TALKING ABOUT THE WORKS OF BRITISH PERIOD PIECES WITHOUT MENTIONING THE INFLUENCE OF THE BRITISH STAGE, OR THE WORKS OF JOE ORTON… OKAY, JOE ORTON HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH BRITISH PERIOD DRAMA, BUT HE ONE OF HULK’S HEROES SO DEAL. THE POINT IS THIS WHOLE DISCUSSION IS THAT THERE ARE INTERESTING INSIGHTS, BUT STILL A LIMITED ANALYSIS OF A VERY PECULIAR PHENOMENON.

A PHENOMENON THAT HULK HOPES TO HAVE A LEAST SHED A LITTLE LIGHT ON. AND HOPEFULLY, DEPENDING ON YOUR DISPOSITION YOU HAVE COME AWAY WITH TWO VERY DIFFERENT REACTIONS…

IF YOU UNABASHEDLY LOVE BRITISH DRAMA? HULK ASK YOU UNDERSTAND THE MECHANISMS AT PLAY AND NOT JUST OBLIGATORILY REVERE IT. TO RECOGNIZE BOTH IT’S HUMANE QUALITIES AND THEN GO ON TO EMBRACE THE ALTERNATIVE AND TRANSGRESSIVE WORKS OF GENRE WHICH RUNS CONTRARY TO IT.

AND IF YOU UNABASHEDLY ROLL YOUR EYES AT BRITISH DRAMA? COME ON DUDE, THIS STUFF IS GREAT.

ENDNOTES!

(1) HULK IS VERY AWARE THIS IS AN AMERICAN P.B.S.-FINANCED MASTERPIECE THEATER SHOW, BUT THE ENTIRE PRODUCTION IS BRITISH.

(2) FOR THE RECORD, THERE’S BEEN A WONDERFUL RESURGENCE OF AMERICAN’S TAKING UP THE LANGUAGE AND IDIOMS OF THE AMERICAN WEST LONG PAST (DEADWOOD, TRUE GRIT). HULK LOVES THIS AND THINKS IT CAN BE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT DEVELOPMENTS IN OUR COLLECTIVE WRITING. BARRY PEPPER LOVINGLY REFERRED TO IT AS “AMERICAN SHAKESPEARE” AND HE IS RIGHT TO DO SO.

(2A) OKAY, SO QUICK LINGUISTICS TANGENT. ANY TIME YOU SEE THINGS THAT TAKE PLACE IN ANCIENT ROME OR MOST BIBLICAL TIMES, THE CHARACTERS SHOULD BE SPEAKING GREEK. WHY NO ONE KNOWS THIS IS BEYOND HULK, BUT IT’S BY FAR THE DOMINANT LANGUAGE AT THE TIME. LATIN WAS SIMPLY THE ADMINISTRATIVE LANGUAGE. BUT SINCE THAT’S WHAT GETS WRITTEN DOWN AS THE POPULAR RECORDED HISTORY HULK GUESS THAT A BIG REASON WE THINK THAT. ANYWHO, HULK BRINGS THIS UP FOR TWO REASONS. THE FIRST IS THAT IF SOMEONE CARED ABOUT MAKING A BIG ROMAN EPIC AND REALLY WANTED TO BE MORE “ACCURATE,” IT WOULD MAKE MORE SENSE TO HAVE THE CHARACTERS USE GREEK ACCENTS (IF THEY COULD DO ONE… AND COME ON WHO IS GOING TO ACTUALLY PUT A BLOCKBUSTER IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE?). THE SECOND REASON HULK MENTIONS THIS IS THAT EVERY FREAKED OUT OVER HOW COMMITTED THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST WAS TO HISTORICAL ACCURACY AND HOW THEY PUT THE ENTIRE THING IN LATIN AND ARAMAIC. WHICH IS HILARIOUS CAUSE THE “STREET LATIN” THEY USED WAS BASICALLY MADE-UP AND PRETTY MUCH EVERY SINGLE PERSON WOULD’VE BEEN SPEAKING GREEK ANYWAY, NOT ARAMAIC. THIS CAUGHT NO ONE’S ATTENTION OUTSIDE OF LINGUISTIC PROFESSORS, BUT EVERYONE LAUDED MEL’S “BRAVE” CREATIVE DECISION. TOO BAD IT WAS COMPLETELY INACCURATE AND THEY WENT THROUGH ALL THAT TROUBLE TO TRANSLATE THE WRONG THING. BUT HEY WHAT DOES THE TRUTH MATTER?

(3) AFTER ALL, HULK WAS ONE TO AGREE THAT THE KINGS SPEECH MAY HAVE BEEN NOTHING MORE THAN VERY WELL-MADE FILM DIRECTED BY A BORDERLINE KUBRICKIAN RIP-OFF ARTIST

(4) WHAT’S ALSO FUNNY IS THAT THIS “NOT BEING ABLE TO DECLARE FEELINGS THING” IS EXACTLY WHAT A LOT OF MODERN ROMANTIC COMEDIES TRY TO DO, 27 DRESSES INCLUDED. THE PROBLEM IS THEY SEEMINGLY GIVE THE CHARACTERS NO CULTURAL OR CHARACTER-CENTRIC REASON TO DENY THEIR LOVE. THEY JUST NEED THE OBSTACLE TO MANUFACTURE DRAMA AND THUS “MAKE IT A MOVIE.”

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31 Responses to “DOWNTON ABBEY AND THE PECULIAR GLORY OF BRITISH DRAMA”

  1. Enjoyable article.
    I’d add Bend it Like Beckham’s success to the list of films employing the same approach. It’s based on the divergence of culture and personal desire, though not of course restricted by whale-bone corsets (I’m pretty sure the shin pads were plastic).

  2. My head hurts…hit post too early.
    In fact I think the film falls down in the ease of resolution at the end, essentially the film spends it’s time setting up the powerful effect of culture on the main character and then throws it out the window for a happy ending.
    Including the final kiss which was a pretty awful contrivance.

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      YOU READ HULK’S LAST COLUMN ON “THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT”? GETS AT SOME OF THE EXACT ISSUES YOU BRING UP!

  3. Being a British person who makes a point of rolling their eyes at most British Period Drama made this a very strange article to read, though I can’t really define why. Something in being ruled out of its intended audience through nationality as much as from taste, maybe?

    Whatever the reason, I can tell you: “SO IS THIS A TWO-WAY STREET?” God, yes. I’ll take cowboys over class every time. Not that I can’t appreciate our more restrained approach to drama (If you haven’t checked out The Shadow Line, Mr. Hulk, sir, I would heartily recommend it).

    There’s just so many posturing love and class-based period stories crowding the shelves and screens in the UK. I just find myself exhausted with the genre by default. – that said, the clip of Maggie Smith you linked to was charming.

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      HULK THANK FOR CONFIRMING THE TWO-WAY STREET THING. HULK HAD SORT OF HEARD THE SENTIMENT BEFORE BUT WAS UNSURE IF IT WAS ANECDOTAL OR MORE TYPICAL.

  4. A baseball writer published an article on the last day of the season about why he liked baseball over other sports, the idea being that there is a lack of frenetic action and then there is, the witholding makes it all the sweeter.
    Not a wholly original thought but there is a parallel to period drama.

  5. Stiv said

    Totally excellent mini-essay. I’ve always found that British dramas are so appealing for exactly this reason; the way that they’re so reserved leads to the big dramatic conflicts, and the desire for catharsis in the form of these characters doing the American Thing is what drives our interest. Plus, totally ignoring the three-act structure! British dramas (or comedies, or whatever) don’t (usually) seem to have that storytelling disease, possibly because of their long literary history and awareness of it.

    It’s also interesting to view non-period films from England in this light, and the one that comes to mind best is Brazil. We spend the whole movie wanting to see Sam Lowry finally freak out and embrace what he wants and not what society wants, but every time he does it, horrible things happen to him (which culminates in the film’s depressing and great finale, which is easy to read as the film’s ultimate commentary on exactly this repression/expression issue, in the most literal, sledgehammer style).

  6. This last year, i’ve experienced Dr Who, Sherlock, Luther, Downton Abbey, The Shadow Line, The Hour, The Fades and many more of the BBC dramas. They are just terrific. All range from very good to great. Can’t explain it. But they are just better at it.

  7. There are many talented American actors but on the whole I find, fairly or unfairly, that a greater number of foreign actors more honestly project a sense of life experience, with all that infers.

    Put another way, I don’t think it’s accidental that our superheroes and action guys are Brits and Aussies anymore. We are neck deep in a generation that has never sweat outside of a gym.

  8. Siythe said

    The conversation we’ve had in the UK about (post sopranos) American drama has often been about how great The Shield/The Wire/Deadwood/Breaking Bad/Mad Men/whatever are and why we can’t do it as well. That specific type of show and the critical adoration they receive is the closest approximation I can come up with to the American idea of ‘British Drama’ you’re talking about here. To my view though those shows often fit the type of storytelling mentioned in this article so it kind of pours water on the idea that we are looking for or expecting something specific from US movies or TV shows that breaks our dramatic traditions and offer a fresh cinematic perspective from across the pond. In the end I don’t think it’s a two way street because there isn’t anything specific we are looking for from US Drama that identifies it the way you have described British Drama here.

    Just as often as the lauding of the very best American shows are the times we wince when we hear about the latest remake of a beloved British show or wonder how we can both have programmes called soap operas but have them be such very different animals or curse you for inflicting us with Sex and City 2.

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      GREAT COMMENT. HULK THANK!

      RE: SEX AND THE CITY 2… HULK APOLOGIZE ON BEHALF OF AMERICA.

    • VyceVictus said

      Siythe, I have a question.
      In all the examples you gave, one thing that seems to be in common is a consistent conflict present that puts main chratcers in imminent danger of their lives (except Mad Men, but I haven’t seen enough to be sure.) As the sopranos showed, these dramas on cable allowed for pushing graphic content and made them much more integral to every episode. In procedural network cop dramas, the violence begins the case/is off screen and all the story is after the fact. In the recent generation of cable shows theres always a “Who will die next/Will he survive this week?” factor in each episode, wheras on networks they save that for season finales/actor conract disputes.

      My question for you and any othr Brits: is the impending violence a significant, if not the main draw to these kinds of american shows? I’m given to understand violence is a lot more inhibited in your programing than in ours.

      And thanks once again Hulk for a fascinating article.

      • Siythe said

        The level of violence on British TV isn’t as inhibited as you think it is. Overall I’d put it somewhere between network and cable. As an example about 10 years ago the BBC launched a spy show called spooks. It grabbed a lot of attention early on by having a pretty young female character have her face shoved into a deep fat fryer and has since killed off cast members so regularly that its almost become a self parody. Now I won’t say that is typical or regular of British TV but plenty of primetime shows go much darker than regular US network TV seems to be allowed while stopping short of being as graphic as the cable channels. Same deal with sex really.

        For that matter the threat of violence really isn’t all that genuine to many of these characters. No matter how many times I see a gun put to the head of the Walter Whites or Vic Mackey’s of this world I’m never going to really believe they are in danger until I know the show is ending.

        So no I don’t see that as the factor that links those shows together. Rather it’s the overall level of quality in writing, acting, direction and production combined with the serialised nature of the storytelling. Shows that just aren’t that good but are trying to do the same thing with the same level of violence (Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy) won’t get the same level of critical acclaim or be included in that particular ‘why can’t we do drama as well as America?’ conversation.

        It might just be the critics that define what these stand out drama’s are. The actual viewing audience will be quite small until word of mouth builds up and more people get the DVD’s. And the word of mouth starts with Critics hyping the hell out things.

    • VyceVictus said

      I see. Thanks very much for your analysis, very interesting stuff.

  9. QED said

    I’ll add in another British view here. One thing I’m always mindful of with US TV is that we tend to always get the best of it here as if something bombed in the US who wants to buy the rights to show it here? I assume the same is true for the US with respect to the UK TV you get.

    What interests me most in the difference between UK and US is the basic difference in production. An average US series is around 22 epsiodes where as in the UK it varies from 6 to 12. It is much easier to maintain high levels of quality in a shorter number of episodes but in the last 10 years or so the US has really started to make use of the advantages of the much longer form of story telling. UK tv budgets are being hit a lot so I don’t know if we will ever really be able to put out anything on the scope of Lost etc.

    I have to admit we do have a two way street, I love me some western but there are some parts of US media that can be royally annoying. It is often really saddening how many films etc become so American-centric to the point of being offensive. One of my all time favourite films The Longest Day would never get made in the modern era because it is so inclusive in nationality (even if the Canadians did get screwed in it).

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      GREAT COMMENT! HULK CAN NO BELIEVE HULK FORGOT TO MENTION THOSE THINGS ABOUT THE GETTING THE BEST / EPISODE LENGTH. VERY GOOD ADD.

      HULK KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU MEAN BY AMERICAN-CENTRISM. FOR INSTANCE WHEN HULK WAS WATCHING DR. WHO AND THE ALIENS KEPT LANDING IN LONDON, HULK LITERALLY HAD THIS PART OF HULK’S AMERICAN BRAIN THAT WAS LIKE “WHY IS IT HAPPENING IN LONDON? CLEARLY IT WOULD BE NYC OR D.C. … OF COURSE THAT IS RIDICULOUS, BUT IT IS A CONDITIONED RESPONSE OF BEING HERE.

      • fearnothing said

        Absolutely! I almost cheered when aliens landed in Johannesburg instead of conducting a tour of major U.S. landmarks. I think every culture has a tendency to wrap their own land around themselves like a cocoon, it makes their audience more able to relate to the contents. U.S. shows get set in NY or LA, UK shows are all about London or Manchester, the Swedish have Wallander in Ystad…

        As for whether we Brits have a similar attitude to U.S. TV, I can’t speak for the rest of my compatriots but I have a very mixed relationship. I enjoyed some shows like CSI and 24, but I almost universally detest American comedy. I haven’t seen any historical dramas, but I can see myself liking them, though not to the extent that I enjoy British ones. Why is that? Mostly due to the reasons you’ve discussed.

        I think we as a nation have a very deep rooted admiration for the denial of impulse and being able to bear adversity or unhappiness – the classic “stiff upper lip”. Couple that with the fact that the fact that if something is forbidden, its appeal is multiplied (and this applies to EVERY culture, it’s a basic part of being human) and you can guarantee a solid audience for this style of show in the UK.

        In the end though, I think we are both getting something from the other that we want. American shows give us a faster paced experience and lay it all on a plate for us, because sometimes we do just want to sit back and enjoy the ride. UK series tantalize you with something you want and make you desperate for it to happen, before allowing it to, because the anticipation is often half of the enjoyment.

  10. Panache said

    Hulk,

    I love your stuff. It’s more positive and effusive than I recall from the continuing, graphic-based work of your biography. I disagree frequently with your conclusions, but I keep coming back. Is there a greater sign of respect?

    Here’s my qualm with the piece: we should have reservations about loving “Downton Abbey” and well-founded ones too. It is a soap opera, and I mean that in the best, still mildly pejorative, sense.

    Too often, we confound the superlative with the descriptive. “I like ‘Downtown Abbey’” becomes “’Downton Abbey’ is intelligent/profound/thing-to-which-I-aspire/etc.” We can appreciate the craft and technique of a piece, but craft and technique do not inherently imbue profundity.

    In re “Abbey”, the writers do not plumb much depth. In a given scene, there are frequently two layers at work (apparent motive vs. actual motive), but typically that’s it. The audience knows vital information that some characters do not. As much as misunderstanding is key to all drama, its flippant use and abuse marks a soap opera. Think of how many reversals there are within the first seven hours of “Abbey”. It’s silly and not particularly human.

    Also, it’s spectacular. Did I mention spectacular? I love “Downton Abbey”; I just have no illusions about it. If the characters were slightly browner, “Downton” would be thrown on Telemundo and dismissed as tripe. Seriously, beware a tan, Maggie Smith. (On a personal note…wear a tan, Maggie Smith? Hotcha.)

    P.S. This annoyingly long comment was culled from a longer, Hulk-size comment, but me no Hulk, and I already feel bad posting this much. Is there an alternate forum to the puny comments section?

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      NO WORRIES, HULK-SIZED COMMENTS APPRECIATED!

      HULK ARGUE THAT MUCH OF THE GOINGS-ON ARE, YES, INDEED SOAP OPERATICS. BUT HULK ARGUE THEY HAVE A GREAT DEAL TO SAY IN TERMS OF THE WAY TRADITIONAL HIGH SOCIETY BROKE DOWN. THE FIRST 7 EPISODES DON’T REALLY SHOW THAT OF COURSE, IT’S MORE ABOUT THE BEHAIVORS THAT SEWED THE SEEDS OF THE BREAKDOWN. BUT REALLY IT’S ABOUT THE KIND OF THINKING THAT NEARLY DESTROYED EUROPE AS THEY HEADED INTO THE GREAT WAR. THEN AGAIN, HULK NOT REALLY SAYING IT IS THE PINNACLE OF HISTORICAL SEMIOTICS OR ANYTHING. PLUS IT SORT OF DEPENDS HOW THE REST OF THE SEASON PLAYS OUT.

      HULK JUST SAYING HULK LIKE THE THEMES INVOLVED. LOTS BRIDESHEADY STUFF GOIN ON.

      • Panache said

        I beg your forgiveness. I have made numerous negative comments which is truly not my intention. Sadly, I’m watching things I enjoyed deteriorate.

        Not sure if you read the following from Julian Fellowes’ interview with The NY Times:

        There are lots of American shows I admire. “Mad Men,” […] I love “Sex and the City,” I think I’ve seen every episode. I like “Glee.” […] But I think the Americans, with “West Wing” and “NYPD Blue” and “E.R.” and “Chicago Hope” – this tremendously energized, multinarrative, multilevel show – I think that was a reinvention of television that has affected us all.

        Apart from the requisite shout-out to “Mad Men”, these shows do not inspire confidence. They seem much less Brideshead and much more pandering to their base.

      • YEAH, HULK WROTE THIS BEFORE SAW 2ND SEASON AND IT PRETTY INDICATIVE OF ALL THE DIRECTIONS THE SHOW WENT IN. IT BASICALLY JUST A MELODRAMA HULK LIKES AT THIS POINT.

  11. [...] all-caps writing on his posts (and it’s worth the effort to do so), he has some interesting thoughts on what makes ‘Downton Abbey’ and British dramas in general work so well. In Hulk’s view, these stories often revolve [...]

  12. drush76 said

    WE AMERICANS WATCH THESE PERIOD PIECES AND WE EMPATHIZE WITH THESE REPRESSED CHARACTERS BY PROJECTING OUR AMERICAN SENSIBILITIES ONTO THEM. WE IMBUE THE STODGY BRITISH WORLD OF YESTERYEAR WITH OUR MODERN COLOR AND VITALITY. WE LOVE TO WATCH THEIR EMOTIONALLY-CONFINED ENGLAND BECAUSE WE SO DESPERATELY WANT TO TURN IT INTO OUR AMERICA. OF COURSE, JUST BECAUSE WE WANT THAT TO HAPPEN DOESN’T NECESSARILY MAKE IT SO. THE PLOTTING DOES NOT REACT TO OUR BLISTERING EXPECTANCY AND INSTEAD DERIVES ITS DRAMA WITH DEMURE REFUSALS. THIS IS THE ART OF QUIET DRAMA, ONE WHOLLY CREATED WITHIN OURSELVES AS AUDIENCE PARTICIPANTS.

    What on earth are you talking about? I like period drama, regardless of whether it is American, British or otherwise. As much as I like DOWNTON ABBEY, it’s not the best period drama I have seen. I also happen to like modern day drama as well. Why do you insist upon labeling everyone’s tastes in entertainment?

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      HULK THINK THERE MIGHT BE SOME CONFUSION OVER WHAT HULK SAYING HERE.

      THE WHOLE “WE” THING NOT A MATTER OF INSISTENCE BUT MORE AN INCLUSIVE STYLISTIC TO CHOICE TO EXPLAIN A CERTAIN KIND OF PSYCHOLOGY. THAT’S ALL.

      NOR IS IT EVER MEANT TO IMPLY BRITISH IMPERIAL DRAMA IS SOMEHOW EXCLUSIVE TO THESE OTHER FORMS. HULK ACTUALLY GO OUT OF HULK’S WAY TO EXPLAIN WHY THEY’RE ACTUALLY ALL EQUAL IT’S JUST THIS LITTLE PART OF A LOT OF PEOPLE’S BRAINS THAT MAKE SOME PEOPLE THINK “BRITISH” = GOOD. AND THE REASON HULK THEORIZING BECAUSE BRITISH DRAMA REPRESENTS THE CERTAIN PUREST FORM OF THE SOCIO-HISTORICAL PSYCHOLOGY DESCRIBED ABOVE.

      NOR IS HULK INTERESTED IN DISCUSSING THE WHETHER OR NOT DOWNTON ABBEY IS “THE BEST” NOR DID HULK EVER IMPLY THAT IT WAS.

  13. I enjoyed this post! Allow me a small correction on a tangential point, because it involved a subject I quite like (but have no authority on, so those with greater knowing are welcome to correct me).

    Footnote 2A (“ANY TIME YOU SEE THINGS THAT TAKE PLACE IN ANCIENT ROME OR MOST BIBLICAL TIMES, THE CHARACTERS SHOULD BE SPEAKING GREEK. WHY NO ONE KNOWS THIS IS BEYOND HULK, BUT IT’S BY FAR THE DOMINANT LANGUAGE AT THE TIME. LATIN WAS SIMPLY THE ADMINISTRATIVE LANGUAGE…”) is incorrect in its scope. The Passion of the Christ was mainly in Aramaic and Latin (which is correct) while the characters of Gladiator would almost certainly have been speaking Latin (either Classical or Vulgar).

    The reason for this is that Rome didn’t tend to supplant languages or customs; in Jesus’ region, Aramaic was “common” and Latin was “administrative” while in Rome around 180AD/CE Classical/Vulgar Latin was used.

    Latin in the time that Gladiator was set was spoken in two forms: Classical Latin (the “noble” form spoken by the high citizens and used for official purposes) and Vulgar Latin (the more fluid, casual form spoken by the majority of the Empire). The difference between the forms would have been similar to that between Oxford English and London slang. Classical is the form we know as “latin” today, while Vulgar split and evolved into today’s Romance languages.

    So in the scene between Maximus and Marcus Aurelius, they were likely “actually” speaking Classical (although we can speculate that Maximus may “actually” have been using Vulgar to spite the Emperor and project a kind of “you’re no better than me” subtext).

    The confusion in the footnote perhaps arises for two reasons:
    1) Greek was often learned as a second language by the educated and noble classes since Romans considered the Greeks to be very erudite and much of the Empire’s philosophy, mathematics, medicine and the like was imported from Greece (and consequently taught/discussed in Greek).
    2) Greek was the dominant language in the eastern regions of the Empire, while Latin remained the dominant language in the western areas (which as mentioned above is why Romance languages today have Latin roots).

  14. Eoin Walker said

    I was just thinking that I’m not entirely sure Downton Abbey will be particularly well remembered. I associate it with the dominant cultural movement over here, the new boring.
    The popularity of unbelievably dull and unchallenging things over here has skyrocketed over the past few years (Adelle, Ed Sheeran, knitwear clothing and Downton Abbey) and it is my firm hope that perhaps the things that will be remembered from this period will be our more creative and challenging programes. Misfits (the first two seasons of which I would say were my favourite thing on tv ever so far) the inbetweeners, shameless and the shadow line. These in my opinion are the real cream of British television.

  15. [...] ABBEY AND THE PECULIAR GLORY OF BRITISH DRAMA (ALL ABOUT SERIES [...]

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