Wednesday, April 18, 2012

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

For those reading this at home, this week, we Wordy Old Men have watched the second episode of the first series of Downton Abbey, as sequenced in its original broadcasts on ITV in the United Kingdom. I, Josh "Old Man" Duggan, am watching this all for the second time in the last two months while Wordy Ginters is taking it all in for the first time. If you want to read the first installment in the series, it is here. The second episode starts with Matthew and Isobel Crawley arriving in the village at their new abode Crawley House. Matthew is reluctant to take to his new life, repeatedly inserting foot into mouth while slowly realizing what the noble life actually entails. Isobel starts to butt heads with Violet, the Dowager Countess, at the local hospital, where Isobel is eventually placed as Chairman of the Board to serve in opposition to Violet, the President of Downton Hospital. A ne'er-do-well from Mr. Carson's past attempts to leverage Carson's past against him. Matthew and Mary trade thinly veiled barbs as resentment over Matthew's being the heir colors her view of him. Having gotten that out of the way...

Wordy Ginters: Should we start the Bates Appreciation Society? Every woman wants him. Every man wants to be like him. And he does it with a cane. I like how he keeps his mouth shut when it comes to Carson's embarrassing "outing" as a former drama clubber and his realism when it comes to recognizing that your history influences how you are perceived.

Old Man Duggan: It is clear early on that Bates is one of the few in the house who as actually lived in the real world. That's not to say that Downton Abbey isn't the 'real world' in a manner of speaking, but there's clearly a worldly wisdom that's been gained by Bates from outside of the walls of a stately manor, and it would seem that it may not just be from having fought in the Second Boer War. It is evident early on that this is a man bound by a code of honor, perhaps a self-fashioned one. As for being in the Bates Appreciation Society, sign me up. I'd polish his turtle.

WG:This episode is all about appearances and what characters must do to maintain dignity. The supposed reluctant heir to Downton Abbey, Matthew, his disdain for the formality and finery of the upper crust (a man so coarse that he chooses his own cuff links and pours his own tea), and then downstairs, with Carson struggling to maintain the proper tone among his staff, from the rip in William's jacket, to his shame at being outed as a song-and-dance man. As if being one half of the Cheerful Charlies was something to be ashamed of. Although, the way the Crawley's continue to degrade the medical profession, I suppose theatre is held in even greater contempt. The way his Lordship spat the words "a job" like Matthew was a baby puppy killer was laugh out loud funny. And that grating old battle-axe O'Brien, getting a smackdown from Cora from being a little loose lipped down in the galley. She rankled at getting called out on her turf and recognized that Cora's pretense at friendship was straight up bullshit smeared on strictly employee/supervisor situation.

OMD: That definitely gets to the themes at play here. I like what Fellowes does with Matthew here. In his disdain of the lifestyle he deems wrought with frivolity and useless pomp, he shits on Molesley--first unknowingly and then unintentionally but insensitively. Just like to you or me, much of the way of life of the nobility strikes him as absurd, but as Lord Grantham lays out for him, "we all have our parts to play," once again showing that he is a reasonable Earl with a much more generous heart than would otherwise be necessary of a nobleman. Ultimately, Matthew sees how his petulance has hurt Molesley and rights the wrong, but not without Robert's guidance. As for Carson, let's not forget that he also chides Thomas for not paying the Dowager Countess the proper respect downstairs. It is funny that the knowledge of his having been the equivalent of a vaudevillian mortifies Carson so much that he preemptively proffers his resignation. If you thought the "job" indignation was great, how about the Dowager Countess not knowing what a "week end" was? If ever one needed an example of a disconnect between their lives and ours, this is it. And it's funny as fuck. As for O'Brien, I don't think Cora was out of line, but I place the blame for misreading the relationship on O'Brien, who clearly has an inflated sense of self-worth/-importance.

One of the scenes that worked exceptionally well for me was a simple one. The scene when Anna is going to bed and Gwen is sitting up reading something furtively accomplishes so many things with a deft subtlety not many shows can manage. Anna asks Gwen if she's reading letters from an admirer, which they then joke about a bit, saying that Mrs. Hughes would bring the vicar in to exorcise her before getting to the real crux of the issue. How would a Lady's maid get a husband? Their lives are spent entirely in the service of others. Their lives revolve around the Crawley family, so much so that immediately after opining about not being able to find a husband by means not involving a stork, Anna and Gwen's conversation goes back Lady Mary situation, highlighting the sad fact that they have little more than to live vicariously through the people they serve.

WG: At some point, I'd like to balance my somewhat tepid disdain for the soapy feel of the series, and admire the craft of it in general. You've alluded to the quality of the show, considering how ambitious it is to tackle a period piece for television, and I wholeheartedly agree. Despite my ways as a vile low brow smart ass, I admire how "crass free" the show actually is. Compared to shite like Two and 1/2 Men and other dreck on TV, it is certainly devine by comparison.

Are you more interested in books than country sports? I suppose I am. Although I have not the faintest clue what country sports may be. Perhaps I'll consult the works of Jeff Foxworthy for more information. Perhaps you're familiar with his work? He has developed a career from a canny framework of jokes, insight, and comedy based around the trials and tribulations of "red necks," and their peculiar and sometimes humorous social habits. If you haven't experienced Mr. Foxworthy, I'd encourage you to do so at once.

OMD: My preference is definitely for books, but that is mainly derived from having enjoyed all the advantages that modern dentistry has had to offer. Do water sports count as country sports? As for this Foxworthy fellow, I've not had the pleasure of familiarizing myself with his work. Does he know that chap Lawrence the Telegraph Worker?

WG: Country sports pentathalon: catfish noodling, frog gigging, bud light num-nums, and shooting paper targets with a wrist rocket? I saw it on ABC Wide World of Sports as a young child.

OMD: The other one in the pentathlon: cow tipping.

WG: The Dowager Countess recalls Nosferatu vintage Max Schreck whence she appears. Ghoulish. Ghastly. Delightful. I thought it was particularly funny and telling when the Doctor feared Lord Crawley's decision to allow Matthew's mother, the remorseless adrenaline pusher, to get involved in the hospital. "On your own head be it."

OMD: I was thinking more Willem Dafoe in Shadow of the Vampire, but same page.

WG: Speaking of the heart drain scene, echoes of Pulp Fiction. With the Dowager in the Arquette role. She's another character who is given a few more shades than the others. She can be deliciously bad, but also pragmatic and sometimes even kind. Sometimes. She is the Capo of the show. Perhaps only Lord Crawley alone acts like he's beyond her influence.

OMD: Yeah, the Dowager Countess sure likes to feel like she has sway. She does in some arenas, but it seems like she has grown a bit too big for her britches.

WG: Again, some of the show is far too stereotypical. The music is fucking insulting. But it has its moments. One scene featured a portion of Downton shot from between a doorway, and the accompanying dialogue mentioned something about running out of options, so it was a nice "squeezed" feel on both visual and literal levels. But for the most part, the show veers away from any pretense towards art, and plays the drama straight up. The "Andromeda" story at the dinner was a little obvious, but made for some nice jousting between Mary and Matthew. I also thought the scene where Daisy and Thomas rocked the "Grizzly Bear" was pretty inspired.

(L to R) Eye Candy, Center of Attention, Desperate and/or Horny
OMD: The show definitely plays like a soap opera as much as anything else. Since it is a period drama, it is acceptable for us all to like it without feeling badly about it. That's sort of the beauty of the whole show. I actually don't have a problem with the music, but largely because I expect it from the genre. It doesn't irritate me, like the utterly predictable and ludicrous music on a show like Lost did, so if I don't get angry when I hear the music, I'm not going to worry too much about it. And I do really like the fucking theme song. Maybe I'll make it be my ringtone. That'd weird a bunch of people out. I think the visual palette both in terms of art direction/production design and cinematography is quite impressive for television. It seems that Fellowes gleaned quite a bit from Altman because he handles the large ensemble well, sneaking in subtle but pertinent reaction shots like Lady Sybil declining the food that one of the footmen is offering her while the Matthew and Mary have their Andromeda back-and-forth. Sybil's attention is held when Matthew starts to assert himself against Mary, a nice touch.

WG: Mrs. Patmore! Straight out of central casting. But how can't you like her. Some sly reference to the naive Daisy about how Thomas wasn't like the other boys was funny.

OMD: Honestly, I don't know if there's a character on the show that irritates me more than Mrs. Patmore. What the fuck was she getting on about with the "Stop that silly nonsense before you put your joints out" rubbish? Seriously, that broad is batshit crazy. She is onto what Thomas is cooking, though.

OMD: Dropsy! I can't wait until we start dealing with consumption and the bevy of hilariously antiquated sounding diseases, especially those with a "the" affixed to the front of them. When the Dowager Countess perishes on account of a flare up of "the herps," it'll be hard to stifle a laugh, despite the emotional weight the moment is sure to pack.

WG: And who could overlook the horrors of The Jake Leg, The Consumption, and the Satchel Mouth.

OMD: Doesn't seeing Dr. Clarkson practice medicine give you pause and wonder how many dipshit doctors were afraid of new fads like saving their patients' lives? If ever there were a doctor depicted on screen that could just as easily have been a stodgy, backwards thinking manager of a baseball team, it's Dr. Clarkson.

WG: One thing that struck me about "The Dropsy" scene is that I was horrified the figurative control over life and death that the Crawley's exert over their little fiefdom would literally play out with the Dowager pulling the plug on the adrenaline gambit. Nice job of ratcheting up the tension. I thought it was a real possibility that the poor bastards heart my explode and a wave of satisfaction would linger in the Dowager's cold dead eyes.

I kind of like the way mirror's are used as well. The Crawley's seem to spend a lot of time admiring themselves in the mirror. Navel gazers. I assume later episodes reveal the transition to full blow shoe-gazing, with lengthy montages propped up by the incongruent tunes of My Bloody Valentine or Swervedriver?

OMD: When you see people outside of your immediate family for no more than maybe three hours a week, I suppose you'd want to make sure every hair was in place. As for the shoegazing, I heard that Fellowes wanted to use Ride exclusively for the score, but Ride refused so they had to go with the run-of-the-mill Merchant/Ivory style score.

WG: Most eye blindingly odd use of music in film history? "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" struck me as an odd choice for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. What do you have?

OMD: For me, it's got to be the bassett hound playing the piano for the entire score of Eyes Wide Shut. [Hat tip to Weibel]

WG: I'm far from familiar with any of the characters, other than Bates, but the middle sister has to be the horniest person on the British Isles. Or perhaps, simply horny for anything that catches Mary's eye. The younger sister is gorgeous. Thus far relegated to shameful eye candy status, with only a few meaningless lines. I assume that changes.

OMD: I don't know about horny, but Lady Edith is fucking desperate as hell. There's definitely a sibling rivalry, but I think Edith is fully cognizant of the fact that she's the runt of the litter and will take anyone who will have her. It's weird having so much riding on the simple act of marrying off, but for these three daughters to maintain their lifestyles and dignity, they really do have to marry pretty quickly. TSLF (my DA sherpa) was telling me that the eldest two daughters are rather old to have not been engaged to be married. Obviously, Mary had an agreement to marry Patrick in place before James Cameron killed him--surely with the help of Billy Zane--but that was far from public knowledge. Edith would probably marry Patrick's corpse recovered from the North Atlantic.

The Regal Beagle
WG: I'd like to blow the froth off of a lukewarm bitter ale at the Dog & Duck. That is where shit goes down in Downton Abbey. The Regal Beagle of the times

OMD: There is a Dog & Duck Pub here in Austin. If they were smart, they'd name everything on the menu after Downton Abbey. I'm ashamed, but I had to look up The Regal Beagle.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how big a toolbag is Charles Grigg, Carson's blackmailer? Do you think they made him grow his poncy 'stache to drive the point home? Also, when he sits down in the chair in the library, his legs look like they can't be more than 18 inches long. Lord Grantham can't be more than 5'10", but he positively towers over Tiny Charlie (that has to have been his stage name next to Carson, right?).

WG: Grigg was a world class piker. I kind of got a kick out of his impertinence, and how it got the house in an up-roar. Sent the maid running out the front door for Christ sake, evil must be afoot.

All in all, solid second episode. I'm invested. These assholes have invested me. I only hope there is death. Some destruction. And some comeuppance. A pinch of weirdness would suit me just fine too.

OMD: I knew it'd get you. Just wait. By the third or fourth episode, you'll be wanting to speed this whole process up. The first time through I watched it all in about three days.


PhattStairs said...

I liked Bates the second he stepped on the screen. Why? Hell if I know. Which brings me to the question: How do they cast these folks (and do it so well)? We need a stodgy old bird, anybody know one? How about a dignified lord? Where do I find one of those at?

Josh Duggan said...

It's insane how instantaneously likable Bates is. The casting director deserves a Nobel Prize for Awesomeness. Apparently Brendan Coyle, who plays Bates, was on another show that PBS (at least in my hood) has always aired Lark Rise to Candleford, so he's not an unknown, per se. Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, is in a ton of shit, too, namely Lost in Austen, another show that TSLF was obsessed with because of its titular concern.

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