Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Wordy Old Men on Downton Abbey: Series One, Episode One

This is a new feature on Inconsiderate Prick in which Wordy Ginters and myself (Josh "Old Man" Duggan) discuss Downton Abbey, starting at the beginning. We are planning on doing an episode a week until we've run through the series. Perhaps Wordy Old Men will tackle other subjects later, but for now, this is what we're doing. I have watched the series once about a month ago, and Wordy is watching for the first time. Both of us were late to the game, but that doesn't mean we don't want to play. This is all meant to be conversational. Think of it like a short podcast that you get to read. 

One important note: in choosing which version to watch, we selected the original UK versions, as they are slightly longer and broken up much more evenly than they were when they were rebroadcast on PBS. 

Wordy Ginters: I've purposefully avoided any research, other opinion, etc... on this stuff. I guess I've assumed it would more or less follow the Upstairs Downstairs, Gosford Park, Rules of the Game (great fucking film) vibe. And it does.

Old Man Duggan: Heading into this initially, my familiarity to the material you mentioned was limited to Gosford Park, of which I wasn't a huge fan. I certainly knew was the rough concept for Upstairs Downstairs was but only in a cursory sense. The only Jean Renoir film I've seen was The Grand Illusion, which was also concerned in part with the class system, but Rules of the Game is not something I've gotten around to seeing.

WG: I liked it, but my panties aren't completely soaked. Speaking of man sex, odd that the line "one swallow doesn't make a summer," one of the better/filthier bon mots I've heard in awhile, sprung from stodgy old PBS.

OMD: Watching this all for the second time around, that line that Charlie Cox's character (The Duke of Crowborough) uttered to Thomas was more jarring than I'd recalled. I mean jarring in the best possible way, but holy shit was that lewd. I suppose it is possible that this line didn't air on PBS, as we're watching the versions in the original British format. It is also weird seeing Charlie Cox as anything other than Owen Slater on Boardwalk Empire.

WG: I'm more interested in the service staff side of things thus far. That might be because my mind has been poisoned by too much Occupy Wall Street styled socialism from Obama and the left-wing media, and not enough Master's coverage.

OMD: Early on, it is definitely the staff that is most interesting to me. I, too, chalk this up to my socialistic tendencies.

WG: Probably some nice parallels to suss out with current day yawning gap between haves and have nots. First season would have been written when Britain was implementing or discussing some of the austerity measures which most honest economists would tell you have been needlessly harsh on social programs and the great unwashed in general. I'm not familiar enough with British politics to speak with even a hint of legitimacy, so let's just agree that the super wealthy are probably all satanic buttfuckers.

OMD: I wish we could get a British historian in here to weigh in, but I doubt he/she would be telling us anything other than that the super wealthy are indeed satanic buttfuckers.

WG: It might be cooler if Lord Crawley was actually ALEISTER CROWLEY, but that is probably a Cinemax series.

OMD: I will warn you before we delve farther into the series that this does not veer into the Cinemax realm. Not even the surprisingly decent series Strike Back--which was coincidentally also a British series (the second one at that, don't ask me how to get your hands on the first series because I've yet to find a way)--which had its fair share of the old skin for which Cinemax has always been known. To my knowledge, neither Robert, Lord Grantham, nor Matthew Crawley become Aleister Crowley, though this series does take its twists and turns and maybe this is where the third series will head.

WG: Crawley seems like one of only a few possibly decent humans one episode in. Glad he kept Bates around. Thomas the gay footman was an enjoyable heel to loathe. Dude kind of reminded me of a young Tom Courtenay, with the sneering and the cockney hardness.

OMD: Lord Grantham (and seriously, it took me about five episodes to know anyone's goddamn name on this show as there are 536 characters that Julian Fellowes wants us to know from fucking Jump Street) definitely seems like a stand-up dude, and the dynamic between him and his wife works pretty well, especially as relates to their differing on their views of the help. As far as Thomas is concerned, he strikes me as the classic Hitchcockian villain only with the more open homosexuality that our time affords us. That and he's fucking evil, letting the viewer really sink their teeth into truly hating someone.

WG: Since The Wire, I've been in the habit of watching shows with English subtitles on. Nice way to catch bits of dialogue and minutae that may otherwise get lost in the shuffle.

OMD: There were certainly times while watching Luck that I needed to throw on the subtitles, but that's because they're mumbly motherfuckers on that dearly departed program.

WG: How much does the bldg on Red Apple Falls look like Downtown Abbey? Oh, and Cora used the word "swag" like she was a middle age hipster wearing a fanny pack at a Bon Iver concert.

OMD: I can't believe I hadn't picked up on the similarities between the Red Apple Falls cover art and Downton Abbey. As for Cora's use of the word "swag," I actually did see her at a Bon Iver concert last fall, sans fanny pack. OK, it was just Elizabeth McGovern, and she was actually in character/costume from She's Having a Baby.

WG: Nice. I had Liz pegged as more of a chamber music, string quartet type of gal.

Who kicked out Bates's cane? Was it that old bag, or Thomas the stereotypical evil gay footman?

OMD: The cane kick was Miss O'Brien, Thomas the footman's partner in crime.

WG: Speaking of the servant caste system, footman, valet, bedroom fire girl, etc... nice and arcane. Like an organizational depth chart. I'm going to have to do some research on this.

OMD: Honestly, the servant caste system was so foreign to me that aside from the butler and the head maid or whatever I was totally clueless about who did what. If TSLF wasn't obsessed with the stodgy aristocracy in Olde England in general, I'd have no idea what was going on in the hierarchical sense within Downton. Her general obsession with all things pre-Great War England was actually what fed my initial hesitancy toward giving Downton Abbey a chance. She got on the DA ride on the ground floor--hell, more realistically it was the sub-basement--but I figured that it was just because she watches every fucking thing that Masterpiece Theater puts on. In retrospect, it was totally and needlessly reductive on my part, but I'll be damned if shit like the mid-90s Pride and Prejudice miniseries didn't bore the piss out of me.

WG: You are fortunate to have a Downton staff sherpa at your side. I assume the parallels between the blue-bloods upstairs and the help downstairs makes for a nice plot device. I'm eager to learn more about the intricacies of that heirarchy. Holy shit, how about that for customer service? I was struck by the opening scenes, with literally dozens of folks running about in preparation of the four or five people in the Crawley clan? Nowadays, the 1 percenters are more apt to pay an illegal alien minimum wage to change the little lords and lordettes diapers than they are to spend some of that ill-gotten cash on a newspaper ironer. Which was another nice way of slapping the viewers in the face about the capricous ways of the moneyed class. Sure, ironing the newspaper is to dry the ink. Bullshit. Making someone iron your newspaper is a power move. And a maid serving a duke. It makes me ill just to put those words in my mouth, the shame is so palpable I'm sweating communion wafers.

OMD: It is definitely hard for me to get in tune with the sundry ins and outs of the social customs of the class/era. It is hard for someone who has spent as much of my life turning my nose up at the needlessly garish and pointlessly extravagant customs of the upper class to take shit like the unconscionable thought of having a maid serve a duke seriously. I am sure within certain circles that would have been extremely gauche, but I'll be damned if I can figure out why.

WG: Batman, Bates, Boers. I hope this intersects with the story down the road.

TITANIC! Fuck you James Cameron.

OMD: It is pretty crazy that the situation that Lord Grantham and family find themselves in is all James Cameron's fault. Then again, so is everything else in the world.

WG: Speaking of odious power moves, did you see footage a few weeks back of Cameron taking his little miracle submarine to the lowest spot on earth? How symbolic.

OMD: I wish he'd taken Avatar with him. Fuck that horseshit. He is the lowest of the low, though, and he should have taken that brazenly ripped off hacktastic film with him.

So I missed this the first time I watched the episode a couple months back, which leads me to believe that if I missed the two craziest parts of the first episode that I was not paying nearly close enough attention early on, but what the fuck was up with that asparagus tower that one of the footmen is carrying immediately following the reveal that Lord Grantham and Mr. Bates were comrades in arms. Seriously, what was that? It looked like some odd Native American structure.

WG: The asparagus! Fuck yes. Shades of Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters. We can only imagine what horrors may be contained inside the inner sanctum of the asparagus cylinder. Maybe it was some kind of elaborate garnish that signified some kind of social more. Like the mourning period which evidently requires all black clothing for 4-6 weeks, and a requisite number of memorials.

OMD: It seems nearly miraculous that Fellowes is able to have us caring about Mr. Bates almost immediately. Bates isn't on screen until the 9:25 mark in the episode, and that's for a split second. He doesn't have a line until after the 10:00 mark. By the end of the episode, though, it's hard not to get worked up over the threat of his departure. Some of this surely owes to his being pitted against the loathsome foils of Thomas and Miss O'Brien, but it seems like it's really the way he carries himself--especially after the cane kick--and that scene in his room with Anna that so effectively endears him.

WG: It was a bit bracing to follow the rapid plot and character development set up over the course of 60 minutes compared to the glacial pace of something like Luck. Fellowes definitely pulls it off. Some of the character devices were a bit on the nose for me, but fuck it, I let go and it worked. You've got to be a flint-hearted prick to not pull for a one-legged war veteran. That he handled the river of shit engineered his way with the classic Brit stiff upper lip certainly made him appealing. Fellowes gives him a few more shades than the other characters. He weeps. He's vulnerable. He's determined. He's modest. He has a certain style and grace. Bringing that through in such a short amount of screen time is a credit to Fellowes and Brendan CoyIe. I especially like the way Bates one ups the Drip of Crowborough by asking him if there is anything he'd like to inspect in his room.

OMD: Fellowes also does a fantastic job of fitting in exposition in a way that makes the world of Downton Abbey accessible to rubes like me. When he has Miss O'Brien explain the situation that the Crawley's find themselves in regarding the death of the James and Patrick Crawley and the ensuing inheritance issues that are arising, he lets another character (Gwen) ask why Mary cannot inherit her mother's fortune. Even with Miss O'Brien calling Gwen stupid, we get our explanation and the pain of being called dumb is eased by the fact that it was the heinous Miss O'Brien who was essentially insulting us. This happens multiple times in the pilot. It's necessary to make sense to the dim masses but doesn't derail the momentum of the show.

WG: Delicate ground work by Fellowes. Strikes just the right balance between advancing plot filigree and being pedantic.

There you have it. A weighing in on the first episode of the first series/season is in the books. 

So weird.


PhattStairs said...

Just watched the first two episodes last night. I will comment in both spaces, but I am sure this will get lost on the second page. Is it OK that I am enjoying the commentary from y'all more than the actual show itself? The second episode is much better than the first, but Owen Slater did spice this one up a bit. One knock I have about the show may actually be a plot device yet to rear its head: I don't know why Downton exists or what it does or why the servants are so apt to serve. Is there a harsh world out there they are afraid of? I am sure early 1900s anywhere was brutal, but I would lot to see a split plot follow dodgy characters in the smoggy London streets as they make their way to a life at Downton. Another thing, Lord Grantham is much to considerate to survive his own manor. I predict a vicious death.

Josh Duggan said...

Obviously any such praise heaped on us is welcome and encouraged. As for the show, it'll get its hooks in. We're working up the stuff for episode three. I was up until past 5:00 trying to finish my response to Wordy's initial observations. Service in one of those manors (and TSLF can feel free to correct me or augment what I say if she feels like it's needed) is a prestigious job at the time. It's a much better job with a better life than is out there for most of these people. In season two, you'll get a longer glimpse at some of this stuff and the alternatives. I think the prestige of working at a manor like Downton Abbey rules out the potential for some of the dregs of society to work there. Thomas is a shithead to be sure, but he's a somewhat refined shithead as far as common folk are concerned. Obviously the potential to raise a family is severely marginalized for the servants, but would you want O'Brien having kids?

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