February 28, 2013
The Odds & Ends of Downton Abbey (and a Couple of Digressions)


I was asked by the three people who read these posts what I thought of the final episode of Downton Abbey.   Now I know I said in my last post that I was done until the Christmas special but, as it turns out, in the U.K. the death of Matthew Crawley was the Christmas special.  So.

Matthew’s Death

How does a young, healthy, sober man get into a car accident on an empty road on a sunny day with a milk truck that I can beat in a foot race?  It isn’t as if Matthew was eating an eclair, then took a swig of coffee that spilled down the front of his impeccable shirt causing him to take his eyes of the road in order to gauge the magnitude of the stain, then decided that perhaps he could get it out with saliva, whereupon he began gnawing wetly on his own button placket, all the while fiddling with the radio trying to find a station that wasn’t playing  ”Hotel California” and failing that, propelled his Stutz Bearcat into the nearest available obstruction (milk truck) in an attempt to, dear god, make it stop.  

Instead, Matthew’s death reads like the work of ne’er-do-well, marginally embittered writers who were tired of Dan Stevens (Matthew) bursting into their office, interrupting  whatever time wasting activity in which they were involved in the name of “research,” demanding to know exactly when he would be available to pursue “other professional opportunities.”  Thus serving to remind the writers how lucky they were to have this opportunity because “marketing departments dictate the literary marketplace,” leaving them so few options in the book world, that their response was to write what can only be described as a “just fucking go already” scene.

Question:  Is Downton Abbey a scientific experiment in “life out of order”, or  the most impressive example of job security ever for older actors ever?  (Subset question:  Did they turn Downton Abbey into an officers’ military hospital to test the viewers’ willingness to accept Downton as a high end retirement home?)

Downton is a place of death.  Specifically, young, untimely death:  the randy Turkish fellow, the virginal footman who loved Daisy and died of something that I believe is called We’re Tired of Writing Dull Dialog For You disease; the beautiful Lady Sybil who channels her inner Chatterley by  taking up with the chauffeur; Miss Swire who was interchangeable with Lord Grantham’s dog, Isis, in terms of her dramatic impact, and, of course, Matthew. (Eighteen year-old Cousin Rose was at Downton for two days before she got shipped back to Scotland.  Let me just say, Whew!  Close one.)  

I don’t know quite how to say this so I will just say it:  The key to unexpected turns of events is to make them unexpected.  For example, if you predictably only kill off anyone under the age of thirty, you thereby establish what is known as “a pattern.”  A pattern could be considered  the opposite of the unexpected. Just something to think about during all that free time the Downton writers now have due to spending exactly three seconds coming up with Matthew Crawley’s death.

Question:  Why Don’t The Crawley’s Ever Go Anywhere?

They’re rich.  They’re retired.  They have great clothes, and no one needs to lose ten pounds before attending a social event, and yet the only place they ever venture is to the drawing room and the dining room in a house the size of the nearby village.  The last movie I saw that was historical and set in a mansion where no one ever left the premises, was The Others, with Nicole Kidman.  All I’m saying, Downton, is it’s been done.  

Just when it seemed that the Crawleys shared a genetic disposition to some sort of agoraphobia, they went to visit Rose’s parents in Scotland—no doubt with the intention of “inviting Rose back to Downton” once  they realized she had craftily escaped with her young life.  I can’t quite imagine how the Crawleys all came to be sitting around in the drawing room (or dining room), having a family meeting on where to take a week’s vacation as if they only have seven days of vacation left on their time cards, and no one suggests “Paris.”  Or “Cairo.” How does “Let’s go see Shrimpy and Lady Shrimpy (aka The Bickersons) in the desolate north in that forbidding manor with the DIY rifle-flower wall art and no central heating” win?  Did someone have a wager to settle? 

Question:  How old were the Shrimpys when they had Cousin Rose?  

Odd chronological familial relations is a kind of mini-staple in visual entertainment, to the extent that more than a few casting decisions look more like someone calling in a favor than actually paying attention to the reproductive cycle of the average human female.  How else to explain:

1.  Marian and Winthrop Paroo

In The Music Man we are introduced to Marian (The Librarian) who lives with her widowed mother and her younger brother, Winthrop.  Marian is old enough to be considered a spinster and looks about thirty years old.  Winthrop is maybe six years old.  I believe Mrs. Paroo’s heavy Irish brogue is a diversionary tactic to prevent us from “doing the math.”

2.  Mitch and Kathy Brenner  

Mitch Brenner frequently visits his widowed mother and younger sister, Kathy, in sleepy little Bodega Bay, soon to be a vacation spot for The Birds.  Ages run crazy all over the place.  Mitch looks to be pushing forty, so in 1960s years he’s probably more like thirty-two years old.  Kathy is twelve.  The Widow Brenner looks about fifty.  It’s possible for her to have had Mitch at eighteen and Kathy at thirty-eight, but who plans a family with an entire generational span between siblings and no one in between?  I mean, don’t they sort of cease to be siblings and become more like a guy and his mom and “that girl.”

3.  The Von Trapps

Nothing seems amiss, until Liesl ‘I-am-sixteen-going-on-forty” von Trapp shows up in the whistle line-up.  It’s a testament to Julie Andrew’s acting that when she’s introduced to the children, played by actors who all look age appropriate with the exception of the young matron, Liesl von Trapp, stomping out their names and ages, that she waits until the toad scene at the dinner table to accuse them of “pulling her leg.”

Question:  Why Do I Expect The Actors Playing The Servants Only To Leave Their Acting Job at Downton Abbey If Asked To? 

It is also a testament to the veracity of Downton Abbey that only the people upstairs seem to be able to leave the show; downstairs it seems they are lucky to have that job.  I mean, I have to remind myself that they aren’t really servants with prescribed lives but actors who are playing servants with prescribed lives.  Yet somehow I find myself reading about Matthew or Lady Sybil getting other acting opportunities and thinking, well, of course.  Yet I somehow know that if O’Brien suddenly showed up  as a Broadway lead, or Jimmy the Footman was the new regular on GIRLS I would find myself thinking, Really?  Who knew? Followed by a good for them!, as if they had, by sheer luck, escaped their sad little basement life.

Question:  Is Isis immortal?

Um, yes?  Either that or a Ripley’s entry.  

February 9, 2013
The Mysteries of Downton Abbey: Part One

I recently came across one of those popular article inserts asking Who are you in Downton Abbey?   I’m sure everyone rushed to their local water cooler to declare themselves “a Mrs. Patmore” or that sweaty looking wanna-be valet with the bad comb over last seen working at Mrs. Crawley’s.  I’m having a t-shirt made right at this moment that reads “I’m an O’Brien,”  as I  pull back my hair, leaving only two tiny cocktail weenie curls, symmetrically located on my sour little face (Question:  Is it by accident or design that O’Brien and Jan Brady have the exact same forehead hair and sense of social injustice?  Discuss.)  Before I leave this paragraph entirely, I have no idea what the wanna-be valet actually does at Downton.  He isn’t a footman.  He isn’t a valet (as we know).  I’ve never seen him cooking or polishing silver…come to think of it, I only see him at mealtime, seated somewhere between Anna and Alfred, reminiscent of the groupies “eating all the steak” backstage in Almost Famous.

The Almost Famous valet is only one of the many characters that I no longer understand in this season’s Downton Abbey.  Let’s begin downstairs, shall we?

Daisy and The Footmen

While Daisy and the Footmen, sounds like a cross between a Victorian novel by Anonymous and an independent film produced in the San Fernando Valley, circa 1978, it’s really more of an historical Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.  To recap:  Daisy likes Alfred who is the first footman.  He likes the new rouge-wearing kitchen maid, who in turn has eyes for the second footman, Jimmy, who is appears to like Daisy, who likes Alfred, and so on.  But wait!  Is that the pizza delivery guy at the door, natty in his valet’s uniform, all roving eyes and hands, directing innuendos at the uncomfortable Jimmy?  Hullooo Thomas!

Hot Tramp, I Love You So, or Ethel

I realize that the comical value of any given name often depends upon one’s generation.  It doesn’t help that almost every single one hundred year old girl’s name has come back into style—except Ethel.  Ethel is pretty much the exact mathematical opposite of erotic (the other opposite of erotic at Downton is Lady Edith).  Or that the only Ethel many of us ever knew was Ethel Mertz, Lucy and Desi’s homebound tenant who had clearly married a man old enough to be her grandfather, thus establishing the accepted generational span for most Los Angeles marriages.  That Ethel Mertz traded her youth for a one bedroom apartment and a pair of landlords who were home often enough to constantly be on you to “turn the music down” is almost as sad as the story of Downton’s Ethel, a young women with what can only be described as a spectacular case of cooties.


Aurally, the Bate’s narrative is comparable to the difficulty of the accents in Trainspotting.  Though I couldn’t always catch what was being said in that film, I could at least hear them.  I am so taxed trying to understand Bates and his roommate and the prison guard and the friendly inmate that I now have a deep furrow between my eyebrows from squinting with effort.  Why?  Since my ears didn’t seem to be adequate to the task, I had to enlist the help of my eyes, as if all my senses are just some kind of massive power source of comprehension.  Worse, I’m filling in so much of the storyline that I am one professional contract and two postage stamps away from charging Julian Fellowes with my writing services.

Why is Bates being framed? Why, since he’s already convicted of murder, does anyone want to plant that large cigar in his bunk, the one that he hid between the bricks of his cell before transferring it to his cellmate’s bunk?  Who stands to gain from Bates remaining in prison? When did Bates become such an Important Person in the English prison system?  

All I know is that Bates has a cellmate who is in cahoots with a guard, and both of them are working overtime to make sure that Bates never gets out.   They remind me of the boy on the grade school playground who keeps harassing his female classmate because he “likes her.”  Downton, am I close?

Additionally, Bates keeps periodically grabbing his cellmate by the shirt and ramming him up against a wall:  In their shared cell, and in the prison passage way.  Last week Bates yanked him from their queue in the exercise yard, forcing him up against yet another wall in a secluded niche, this time with a small knife to the throat.  Let me see if I’m using the term correctly:  Is this what is meant by rough trade?

January 29, 2013
ER: Downton Abbey

Just when I had comfortably settled into Dr. Clarkson’s portrayal as a country doctor who is really a serial killer, along comes some celebrity MD from London to make Dr. Clarkson look like he knows what he’s doing.  The tragedy is that even though this time Dr. Clarkson was one hundred percent correct in his medical diagnosis, the patient still died.  Well done, Downton!  Frankly, if the Crawleys aren’t careful no one is going to want to visit for a fortnight of shooting and cocktails.

I will say that I that I was impressed by Dr. Clarkson calmly hanging back from Lady Sybil when she was having seizures, since, as he said, “There is nothing to be done,” instead of racing over and pretending to “do something” in the same manner that certain mechanically-challenged motorists check under the hood when the car breaks down.

A high point of the episode was the London MD’s response to Dr. Clarkson’s observation of the very pregnant Lady Sybil that she seemed a “little off and her ankles were swollen.”  The London MD replies, as any concerned physician would when faced with a not-unusual pregnancy complication, “Maybe Lady Sybil just has fat ankles.”  Yes.  The assessment of cankles now passes as a second opinion. 

At which point I’m thinking, Did they even have medical schools in England, or just a grand tradition of surgeon-barbers?

I’m now loving this show more than ever.

January 13, 2013
A Very Special Agatha Christie Downton Abbey


Several months ago I read about this horrible, horrible disease.  So horrible that I dare not speak its impossible to pronounce name.  It features the emergence of small threads from under one’s skin, resembling the fibers of a cheap, plaid polyester sofa that someone’s rarely washed dog claimed ten years ago with no plans to surrender any time soon.  A theory has been advanced that this disease comes from outer space.  Is this possible?  I have to say Yes, because ‘possibility’ is pretty much the cornerstone of hypochondria; and while I’m not a world class hypochondriac but more of a talented amateur, I should know.  (This personal state of affairs is not helped by access to the Internet and possessing a novelist’s imagination.) 

Which brings me to Dr. Clarkson, M.D., the preferred physician of the family and staff of Downton Abbey, at which point I’d like to refer you to the photograph.  Take a good look, linger if you like, because when they eventually fall into the care of the esteemed Dr. Clarkson, you won’t be seeing their likes again.  Dr. Clarkson is the exact locus where Downton Abbey and Ten Little Indians (the 1960s film adaption of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None) meet.

In Ten Little Indians, ten people are invited to a mountain retreat by a mysterious host calling himself Mr. Owen, who never seems to arrive, exactly.  Unless he is the person picking off all the guests, one by one, their deaths punishment for having literally gotten away with murder themselves.  The whole thing is a basically a kind of low-budget, 1970s, New York City vigilante affair, if Charles Bronson were some sort of scold, greeting his guests with a taped voice that gets the accusatory tones of someone’s mother just right.  

Predictably, the actors playing the ten guests react to the information that they are all killers by acting as if they had just enrolled in a beginning Method class and were told to “access the time in sixth grade when you were caught red-handed pulling a classmate’s chair out from under him as he went to sit down after saying the Pledge of Allegiance in school assembly, landing hard on the floor.   And even though your little hand still gripped the back of the folding chair, you still vehemently denied your guilt, which no one believed.”  It may help, too, to know that three of the actors were Shirley Eaton, notable for her willingness to be naked in Goldfinger; Fabian, an American Idol contestant before American Idol existed  (such is the sadness of peaking before the wave, creatively speaking), and Hugh O’Brien, one of those handsome-ish TV actors who starred in a series about Wyatt Earp during the Golden Age of Television and who, I discovered on Wikipedia, married for the first time at age eighty-one to a women not much older than I, with Debbie Reynolds singing at their Crystal Cathedral wedding—all of which sounds like a Disneyland attraction located in the New Orleans section between Frontierland and Adventureland.  Spoiler Alert (if my memory serves):  Shirley “Goldfinger” Eaton survives; Fabian “I’ll Never Achieve Cinematic Legitimacy” does not.

Mr. Owen Dr. Clarkson began the first season of “Downton Abbey” with a seriously ill young farmer in his care.  Isobel Crawley, new to Downton and someone who knows her way around a surgery by virtue of her husband (a London doctor) and her position as a physician’s assistant, tells Dr. Clarkson that the young man needn’t necessarily die due to the amazing success with a revolutionary treatment now being used in London.

Dr. Clarkson rejects her suggestion (and the medical wisdom of the MDs in London), explaining that, no, this young man is going to die and they should simply allow him to die.  The young man says, weakly, Uh, if I’m dying anyway, what’s the harm is giving it a go?  This is met with the doctor’s patented condescension due to the man’s social status and, an admonishment that death is death and that’s your final destination, pal.  Then his young wife, who is not at all taken with the prospect of being a destitute widow with children and the very real possibility that she’ll be selling herself on the street in no time thus shortening her own life span by about sixty years, also timidly asks if they might try it?

No, says Dr. Clarkson, sighing and vexed, as if to say, What part of I’m going to let this young fellow die are you not understanding?   Do you not know the meaning of the word “expendable?”  If you had gone to Oxford, you would, but instead you were born to a life of decided to muck stalls.  And now I must go dress for cocktails with Lord Grantham.

When Isobel Crawley cures the young farmer with the procedure she suggested is Dr. Clarkson relieved?  Is he grateful?  Does he say, I’ll be damned?  No.  He complains to Lord Grantham that “this sort of thing will not be tolerated in his surgery,” as if she had broken out the laudanum, then went for a joy ride in his brougham.

Next up in the Ten Little Downton Abbey:  Matthew Crawley.  Son of Isobel, hero of the first World War where he sustained a spine injury that left him unable to walk, and unable to “truly be a man.”  Unfortunately, Matthew is engaged to Miss Swire, a delicate girl with whom he has no discernible sexual chemistry so it could be argued that she may not take the bad “man” news as hard as the doctor thinks.

Months of Matthew in a wheelchair pass, until the day in drawing room when Miss Swire trips on a corner of carpet and Matthew leaps from his chair to catch her.  I’m no Doctor Clarkson but I can’t help wondering if there isn’t some physical stage between paraplegic and leaping?  Wouldn’t there be some small increments of change, some inkling of improvement that one would notice?

Is Dr. Clarkson relieved?  Is he grateful?  Does he say, I’ll be damned? No.  He tells Lord Grantham and the rest of clan who are questioning him in the drawing room that upon reading the x-ray it was his educated opinion that the spine was severed.  Severed, he explains, to the point where one will  no longer truly be a man.  However, a doctor in London (again with the London medical community) also read the x-ray at the same time as Dr. Clarkson and diagnosed a “bruised spine” meaning that recovery was possible.  Yet Dr. Clarkson felt it would be cruel to offer Matthew any shred of hope.  And, as you see, Dr. Clarkson finishes, It was, and it is, and what about those cocktails?  Carry on being a man, Matthew.

Unfortunately, the Spanish Flu is laying everyone to waste.  Lady Grantham gets sick.  Very sick and who do they call?  Dr. Clarkson tells the family that  She’ll probably expire in the night.  Unless, of course, she doesn’t.  But I really think she will.  Yes, look at her bent over the bed, sick and sweating and delirious.  Gather round, Granthams, because it isn’t like she should be quarantined or anything because it isn’t like this flu is contagious and killing a third of the planet’s population and—oh, by the way—could you get a couple of the servants in here, too?  If only because they eat in the kitchen, near the food.

Miss Swire takes ill at the same time but the doctor says she has just a touch, not even a cough and I’ll see you in the morning…when rigor mortis has set in.  

As he stands with Matthew and other family members, looking at Miss Swire’s sweet, lifeless form while the doomed Lady Grantham is recovering nicely down the hall, is Dr. Clarkson relieved?  Is he grateful?  Does he say, I’ll be damned?  No.  He says Ah, yes.  Tricky business flu.  Hard to predict.  Cocktails?

(At this point, one wonders why Bates didn’t refer his inconvenient and vindictive ex-wife to Dr. Clarkson for a check-up.) 

In the Season Three opener, when Mrs. Hughes discovers a lump in her breast and it’s off to the man who cannot tell the difference between a bruised spine and a severed spine.   As Mrs. Hughes sits in Dr. Clarkson’s office, Mrs. Patmore by her side getting increasingly agitated, Mrs. Hughes says, “Mrs. Patmore, please allow me to be the hysterical one.”  Now I believe that Mrs. Patmore was attempting the verbal equivalent of kicking a spouse under the table when dining with friends that you really don’t like because of their pretentious utterances, and backhanded compliments yet you can’t avoid them because, you keep claiming to be too busy for dinner, they finally say, Okay, then when can we have dinner? and replying Never is never an option.  There is Mrs. Patmore in Dr. Clarkson office, figuratively kicking Mrs. Hughes under the table, speaking with her foot, “Listen, Mrs. Hughes, remember when I was going blind in the first season and was trying to keep it a secret even though I was working all day with knives and  boiling water and open flames and no one really noticed I was going blind and making culinary mistakes because I was cooking English cuisine?  And when I was found out I said that I hid my condition because I was afraid I would lose my lucrative Downton Abbey kitchen job?  Well, really it was because I’m friends with the young farmer’s wife and she told me what happened in the surgery, her fears of destitution and descent into that kind of really unsanitary Edwardian Era prostitution.  Then there was the confab of overexposure in the sick room of someone with Spanish Flu.  And maybe I didn’t go to Oxford but even I know a severed spine when I see one.  After all, I work with joints of venison and butchered lambs and pheasant and it isn’t rocket science to see when something is severed.  And, by the way, you’ll notice that Lord Grantham sent me to LONDON, where I was treated by doctors in LONDON and now I don’t even need contacts.”

But Mrs. Hughes, not unlike a spouse who turns to you and says, “Why are you kicking me?” causing you to smile nervously at your hosts while secretly feeling astonished as such cluelessness, says to Dr. Clarkson, “When can we do the biopsy?”

He tells her now, and Mrs. Patmore exclaims, “Will it hurt?”—trying desperately to get her friend on board here.  Instead Mrs. Hughes replies, “It doesn’t matter.  Whether it hurts or not, it must be done,”  effectively releasing Dr. Clarkson from any pretense of medical competency.

Post-biopsy, Dr. Clarkson tells Mrs. Hughes that—big surprise—he can’t tell what’s what.    He uses the word “inconclusive” the way other people say, “who the fuck knows?”  He’s decided to send it on to London for a second opinion, which would be heartening except this is the same doctor who had a second opinion (from London) on the condition of Matthew’s spine.   So, it doesn’t matter what the other doctor says since Dr. Clarkson Owen will be drawing his own conclusions anyway.

It will be over two months before he hears anything—long enough for Mrs. Hughes to be untreated and well on her way to becoming part of the cast of Ten Little Indians.  His advice?  Take it easy and don’t work too hard, clearly ignoring the fact that all those cocktails don’t pour themselves, something he may want to consider once he’s done “treating” everyone.

(Downton Update:  As of last week Mrs Hughes has been given a death warrant clean bill of health by Dr. Clarkson.  Nice knowin’ ya, Mrs. H.)