Something’s in the heir
So, we’re all aware of the parallels between Downton Abbey and Jane Austen’s novels, right?
Family home: in peril. That subject rocks the very foundation of Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility and Persuasion. Sisters, and no brothers to become the heir apparent. An air of familiarity? A domineering Dowager Countess. Unsuitable suitors.
No surprise, then, that Austen lovers are watching Downton, even though it’s not set in the Regency. Personally, I enjoy picking up on the subtle and not-so-subtle nods to Austen that are intentional from the well-educated screenwriter Julian Fellowes. But even more than that, I have to admit I’m more than a little dazzled with Fellowes’ screenwriting even if the content does at times seem…familiar. But then again, maybe that adds to the show’s universal appeal?
First and foremost with Fellowes’ writing, we notice the pace. For a period drama, the show moves at a fast clip. In early interviews, during Downton’s first season, I read that he was inspired by the pace of American cop shows such as CSI Miami. In fact, during this past Sunday’s Episode 2 of Season 3, I noted an exchange between Thomas and O’Brian that, on the page, couldn’t have been more than four lines of dialogue. It hardly constitutes a scene! Fellowes walks a fine line, I think, when he gives us so little of the scene that we can hardly absorb it before he cuts to the next one.
Too much editing, too many cuts, can make for a choppy and dizzying narrative, and he’s not guilty of the meandering scene, that’s for sure. He’s a writer that knows how to make us salivate for more.
He also peppers his scripts with humor, another endearing move. The one-liners that he graces Maggie Smith’s character with end up as memes all over the Internet, (likes the one above), and for good reason. The writing sparkles. We love it even more that these gems come from an older woman, because, let’s face it, we all want to be the matriarch (or patriarch) spewing one-liners someday. It’s very cool to see an older woman wield such power (Lady Catherine?). Even better: two matriarchs duking it out. What fun it was to watch Maggie Smith and Shirley MacClaine sparring in the drawing room!
In tandem with the humor, Fellowes tends to go for the emotional jugular, and he no doubt tops his pages with that old writer’s trick: what’s the worst thing that could happen to this character? (Lady Edith–Episode 2 Season 3). With every episode we have at least one underdog to root for (FREE BATES!) and then underdogs to the underdogs–Daisy? At this very moment in time, I’m concerned for not only Bates and Daisy, but Lady Edith too. And Lady Edith was rather bitchy in early episodes, yet now we want her to land a better guy than her sisters could even imagine?! Our urge to see the underdogs come out on top keep us coming back, you know.
Admit it, Fellowes has us riveted with the intricate back-stories, love stories and dynamics of the characters he has created. The casting has only added to the sizzle. Yes, Dan Stevens is good looking, but hey, so is Hugh Bonneville, right? Likewise, Michelle Dockery who plays Lady Mary has to be the most gorgeous, expressive young actress I’ve seen in a long time. The way she cocks her head, raises her eyebrows and sighs has me well on my way to a girl crush! We all want the best for her, and yet we all know her happiness will be fleeting. Can’t be gorgeous, rich, and happy for long, can she? Elizabeth McGovern too, rocks her age–she’s 51–and an SNL Downton spoof labeled her a MILF! I don’t like to use that term, but there’s something about having the middle-aged couple on the show looking hot even in their Edwardian clothes and hairstyles.
If you’re a Downton fan, you’re a Julian Fellowes fan, and you may want to see Gosford Park simply because he wrote it. I wanted to see The Young Victoria with Emily Blunt when it came out, but I missed it, and now that I realize he wrote the screenplay, that too will be on the Netflix line-up. Fellowes wrote a couple of novels that might be worth checking out: Snobs and Past Imperfect. As a (conservative) member of the peerage and a manor-house owner himself, Fellowes comes by much of his knowledge of the upper class first hand. What’s great is his ability to skewer the upper class without completely condemning it.
Two ways to gauge any TV show’s success can be measured by how much merchandising and amateur parodies it generates, and Downton has spurred both. You can now buy FREE BATES tote bags and WHAT IS A WEEKEND? t-shirts on the Shop PBS site and who hasn’t seen a spoof or two of Downton floating around on the Internet or SNL?
A better way to measure success: 7.9 million viewers tuned in for the American series premiere of Season 3.
The critics and academics can split hairs about Downton to their pedantic hearts’ content. But we, the people, have spoken.
Thank you, Julian Fellowes, for putting heirs on the air for us Americans.
Karen Doornebos, Author of Definitely Not Mr. Darcy
(If you look closely you can see Parliament in the background of this shot taken from the London Eye.)
Are you watching Downton?
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