Wednesday, February 8, 2012
I fear that with the new Titanic/amnesia story line, and the who-killed-Bates’-wife story line, Downton Abbey may just be jumping the shark. How much drama can happen in one family? It’s been lots of fun, for sure. The PBS soap about the masters and servants of an Edwardian mansion is gorgeous to look at (oh, the dresses!), and the characters are pretty interesting, although they are starting to get a little garbled. (Who is Edith, anyway? The bitchy, put-upon middle child? The rough-and-tumble adulterous auto mechanic? The soldiers' angel of mercy?)
Oh well. Downton Abbey is nevertheless a sensation and Sunday night appointment TV for thousands of people. Just as, in 1970s, my mother and I sat down together Sunday nights to watch Upstairs, Downstairs¸ a PBS series with the same premise, except in a London townhouse. Upstairs, Downstairs ran for five seasons and the characters became familiar as family. So I was thrilled to see it available for streaming on Netfix, and I’ve been gobbling it up, two and three episodes at a time.
Well, now. Even though the first several episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs are in black and white, and the production values are primitive compared to Downtown Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs is a hundred times more colorful, even without amnesia and murder. (Though I do recall a Titanic story somewhere along the way.) It is radical, dealing with brutal class issues in a way Downton Abbey only tiptoes around, and its story lines, dealt with sensitively but boldly, include adultery, rape, homosexuality (men and women), suicide and its aftermath. And that’s just season one.
Upstairs, Downstairs reminds me, yet again, how bold art was in the 1970s, how tepid and cautious it has become today.
Oh of course, there’s lots of sex and violence in today’s movies and television, lots of bombastic boundaries-pushing. But the raw emotion and honesty of 1970s movies like Cowboy, Network and
Badlands have given way to comic book sex and
violence, and glossy re-imagining of the past. Villains in today’s blockbusters
are as believable as the moustache twirlers of the silent era, or if they
represent our past, they are gentled up, to humanize them and not hurt anyone’s
Today, we deal with race with The Help, about a white girl making life better for the African-American maids of her hometown during Jim Crow. She pushes up against mostly benign racists (they are such meanies!), and though brutal consequences are hinted at in the story, the protagonists get away with an awful lot without anything really bad happening. Certainly not as bad as the stuff that really happened at that time.
Even the sitcoms of the ‘70s dealt with issues in a full-frontal fashion, rather than the tittering, judgmental, or maudlin ways we see now. Among other things, All In The Family dealt honestly and confrontationally with race. One episode of Maude deals (in a shockingly casual fashion, by today’s standard) with prescription pill dependency. In another, Maude becomes pregnant and has an abortion--an untouchable topic these days, though it remains a reality of life. Abortions don’t happen in TVland anymore, and not so much in movies, either--at least not without moral retribution. And that is neither to condemn nor condone abortions, but only to say that it is a reality that even artists have learned to shy away from for fear of offending.
I have good-old-days syndrome, to be sure. I am homesick for my hometown of
, but what I most miss—like many of my
friends who grew up there in the ‘70s—is the gritty, graffitied, dangerous but
soulful city of our youth. The New
of the cult classic The Warriors, or
the 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham
One, Two, Three, before the glittery 2009 remake. New York City
There was honesty to yesterday’s grittiness and unflinching confrontation with what is versus what we can invent, and what really was rather than what we wish it had been. Downton Abbey is lovely, and we root for Lady Sybil and her chauffer suitor to transcend class and find love. But Upstairs, Downstairs more shockingly presents a maid who is raped by the young master of the house in which she previously worked, and then dismissed from her new job at the Bellamy’s household because she is pregnant and helpless against the class mores of the times. It’s appalling, and probably closer to reality than Maggie Smith’s haughty but harmless sniffs of distain in Downton Abbey.
Downton Abbey puts a thick layer of sugar coating on the life of the serving class, which doesn’t do justice to the true story of the times. But it seems that we are not courageous enough to face who we really were--and are.