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

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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.  

August 20, 2012
How much do I love Girls?  I love it so much. I swoon a little over the rather brilliant dialog.  I adore the perfection of the cast and characters.  It’s breezy, oh-this-old-thing aspect is so convincing that it leaves no doubt as to how much work and artistry is actually involved. It’s a bit like the old Dolly Parton quote that it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.
To be clear:  I am not the demographic for Girls.  If you want to locate my demographic imagine the weird wasteland that lay outside the house in the movie Beetljuice.  Now picture Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin running in terror from the giant sand worm that roams this particular limbo. Now go ahead and replace the sand worm with that commercial about the woman who is portrayed as a stick figure of leaky pipes—you know the one where she goes to lunch, then rides an elevator, then walks down the street completely self-conscious because her entire urinary tract system is really just crappy plumping in a slumlord’s rental?  Or try the commercial with the Cialis couple who spend their down time lounging outside in matching bathtubs while holding hands.  (Fun Fact:  When a friend of mine turned fifty, she asked her “landscaper”, a self-important, draw string pants-wearing, ah!  India! feng shui gasbag if she could take a bath in the bathtub he had in his garden.  So maybe there is a whole swath of middle-aged Americans with garden bathtubs that I was unaware of, though I suspect he had the tub in the garden for the same reason that we had an old claw foot tub in our yard when we bought our house:  Because someone was too lazy or too cheap to haul its two-ton ass away.  But, really, isn’t leaving your discarded bathtub on the lawn is really just one step from putting your car permanently on blocks.)  Still not there?  Then allow me to introduce Jamie Lee Curtis and her willingness to publicly announce her views on bowel evacuation.  Really, toss in a Beano ad and I think all bases due south of your own personal border will be covered.  In any case, it seems these are my people.
But the fact is that the emotional world of Girls is so sharp and true that it transcends age as it cuts to that elusive universal experience that is essential to art.  The great thing about art is that it doesn’t just live in a single time zone or, to put it another way, the great thing about Girls is how much of it I recognize.  It isn’t simply that these city girls and their adventures and sentimental educations recall my own city girl youth (that wouldn’t be art; that would be nostalgia) but that they depict a timelessness.  You could probably find four young women in New York during World War II and one would be the girl who loves the man who loves her though she is no longer in love but is engaged to him anyway; the virgin; the glamor girl who is the resident free spirit; and the girl who is less definable because her primary quality is that of observer/writer/dreamer.  Or, to take it back even further, the March sisters of Little Women comprise the pretty girl who finds love with the decent man (Meg), the adventurous, vaguely amoral girl trading on her pretty face (Amy), the saintly virgin (Beth), and Jo March, who is writing it all down.
So what else do I love?  Hannah (“A voice of a generation”) who is involved with a guy who is all kinds of wrong with some aspects of all kinds of right thrown in, so what appears to be a questionable choice quietly becomes something less expected.  The guy’s a terrific character, not to mention that the relationship is almost like a Rorschach in real time.  In almost any other sitcom, Hannah would be limited to constant self-deprecation and irony, while the boyfriend would be less fundamentally strange.  His actions and reactions would be tempered, as if his idiosyncrasies are no more than a persona he assumes; as if underneath all his sometimes difficult eccentricity is someone you could take home to mom.  Dunham knows better.  She understands that this character’s inner self isn’t less profane or selfish than we think—he is as he seems to be—but that along with the unvarnished sex and ego is tenderness.  It’s an unexpected revelation when it comes, as is Hannah’s unexpected reaction.  Their relationship, given what usually happens on shows like this, is realistic to the point of seeming almost radical.
Marnie is the responsible girl, self-supporting with the wonderful boyfriend.  He’s the sweetheart who gives all the right gifts because he knows her that well and loves her that much; yet Marnie cannot admit that her love for him has lost its erotic charge and become familial.  Even when she describes his touch as that “of a creepy uncle,” she’s still the Good Girl who can’t go back on her promise to love and cherish, unable can she admit that True Love just may have an expiration date after all. 
Also radical is the nudity and the sex and the look of the actors—all of which play against the accepted (and expected) Hollywood-type.  Not that the cast isn’t appealing by any standard, but the physical range is broader.  In Girls, the writing and characterizations are the locus where we find attractiveness: no one is without his or her charms.  
The best-party-of-your-life is the episode where everything shifts and deepens.  Hannah moves beyond the tunnel-vision of how she is treated by her guy friend when she is forced to examine how she thinks of him (or doesn’t think of him).  Marnie would rather whine and demand sympathy rather than acknowledge her own selfishness when it comes to the boy whose heart she just broke.  Jessa’s cavalier attitude fails when she ends up in the emergency room with her employer who was jumped by two men that Jessa brazenly taunted.  When she tells him, as thin consolation, that they can “still be friends,” he replies, now sadder and wiser himself, that they were never friends. It’s a sobering moment.
Shoshanna is the only one who isn’t made to face her flaws and is rewarded with the man who will finally relieve her of her virginity (her “biggest baggage”).  That this cynical guy finds himself entranced by this sweet, slightly unconventional girl, is a terrific moment.  It’s a sort of perfect illustration of how we fall for the least likely people in the space of an instant, when we weren’t even thinking about love at all.  This is what makes Girls timeless.  This is what makes it art.
And it’s so fucking funny.

How much do I love Girls?  I love it so much. I swoon a little over the rather brilliant dialog.  I adore the perfection of the cast and characters.  It’s breezy, oh-this-old-thing aspect is so convincing that it leaves no doubt as to how much work and artistry is actually involved. It’s a bit like the old Dolly Parton quote that it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.

To be clear:  I am not the demographic for Girls.  If you want to locate my demographic imagine the weird wasteland that lay outside the house in the movie Beetljuice.  Now picture Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin running in terror from the giant sand worm that roams this particular limbo. Now go ahead and replace the sand worm with that commercial about the woman who is portrayed as a stick figure of leaky pipes—you know the one where she goes to lunch, then rides an elevator, then walks down the street completely self-conscious because her entire urinary tract system is really just crappy plumping in a slumlord’s rental?  Or try the commercial with the Cialis couple who spend their down time lounging outside in matching bathtubs while holding hands.  (Fun Fact:  When a friend of mine turned fifty, she asked her “landscaper”, a self-important, draw string pants-wearing, ah!  India! feng shui gasbag if she could take a bath in the bathtub he had in his garden.  So maybe there is a whole swath of middle-aged Americans with garden bathtubs that I was unaware of, though I suspect he had the tub in the garden for the same reason that we had an old claw foot tub in our yard when we bought our house:  Because someone was too lazy or too cheap to haul its two-ton ass away.  But, really, isn’t leaving your discarded bathtub on the lawn is really just one step from putting your car permanently on blocks.)  Still not there?  Then allow me to introduce Jamie Lee Curtis and her willingness to publicly announce her views on bowel evacuation.  Really, toss in a Beano ad and I think all bases due south of your own personal border will be covered.  In any case, it seems these are my people.

But the fact is that the emotional world of Girls is so sharp and true that it transcends age as it cuts to that elusive universal experience that is essential to art.  The great thing about art is that it doesn’t just live in a single time zone or, to put it another way, the great thing about Girls is how much of it I recognize.  It isn’t simply that these city girls and their adventures and sentimental educations recall my own city girl youth (that wouldn’t be art; that would be nostalgia) but that they depict a timelessness.  You could probably find four young women in New York during World War II and one would be the girl who loves the man who loves her though she is no longer in love but is engaged to him anyway; the virgin; the glamor girl who is the resident free spirit; and the girl who is less definable because her primary quality is that of observer/writer/dreamer.  Or, to take it back even further, the March sisters of Little Women comprise the pretty girl who finds love with the decent man (Meg), the adventurous, vaguely amoral girl trading on her pretty face (Amy), the saintly virgin (Beth), and Jo March, who is writing it all down.

So what else do I love?  Hannah (“A voice of a generation”) who is involved with a guy who is all kinds of wrong with some aspects of all kinds of right thrown in, so what appears to be a questionable choice quietly becomes something less expected.  The guy’s a terrific character, not to mention that the relationship is almost like a Rorschach in real time.  In almost any other sitcom, Hannah would be limited to constant self-deprecation and irony, while the boyfriend would be less fundamentally strange.  His actions and reactions would be tempered, as if his idiosyncrasies are no more than a persona he assumes; as if underneath all his sometimes difficult eccentricity is someone you could take home to mom.  Dunham knows better.  She understands that this character’s inner self isn’t less profane or selfish than we think—he is as he seems to be—but that along with the unvarnished sex and ego is tenderness.  It’s an unexpected revelation when it comes, as is Hannah’s unexpected reaction.  Their relationship, given what usually happens on shows like this, is realistic to the point of seeming almost radical.

Marnie is the responsible girl, self-supporting with the wonderful boyfriend.  He’s the sweetheart who gives all the right gifts because he knows her that well and loves her that much; yet Marnie cannot admit that her love for him has lost its erotic charge and become familial.  Even when she describes his touch as that “of a creepy uncle,” she’s still the Good Girl who can’t go back on her promise to love and cherish, unable can she admit that True Love just may have an expiration date after all. 

Also radical is the nudity and the sex and the look of the actors—all of which play against the accepted (and expected) Hollywood-type.  Not that the cast isn’t appealing by any standard, but the physical range is broader.  In Girls, the writing and characterizations are the locus where we find attractiveness: no one is without his or her charms.  

The best-party-of-your-life is the episode where everything shifts and deepens.  Hannah moves beyond the tunnel-vision of how she is treated by her guy friend when she is forced to examine how she thinks of him (or doesn’t think of him).  Marnie would rather whine and demand sympathy rather than acknowledge her own selfishness when it comes to the boy whose heart she just broke.  Jessa’s cavalier attitude fails when she ends up in the emergency room with her employer who was jumped by two men that Jessa brazenly taunted.  When she tells him, as thin consolation, that they can “still be friends,” he replies, now sadder and wiser himself, that they were never friends. It’s a sobering moment.

Shoshanna is the only one who isn’t made to face her flaws and is rewarded with the man who will finally relieve her of her virginity (her “biggest baggage”).  That this cynical guy finds himself entranced by this sweet, slightly unconventional girl, is a terrific moment.  It’s a sort of perfect illustration of how we fall for the least likely people in the space of an instant, when we weren’t even thinking about love at all.  This is what makes Girls timeless.  This is what makes it art.

And it’s so fucking funny.