Golden age of TV drama? One is not impressed
OPINION:You might be a fan of ‘Downton Abbey’. But look closely and you will see little more than the superior ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ reworked, writes BRIAN BOYD
DOWNTON ABBEY is Eastenders with petticoats and footmen. Except Eastenders has a coherent narrative, nuanced scripts and a fair-to-good level of acting ability.
The inexplicably popular Downton suffers from Convenient Death Syndrome, dramatic non sequiturs and a surfeit of deus ex machina trickery. And it has those horrendous characters: the Earl of Grantham’s wan and wooden daughters (an Aldi version of the Mitford Sisters), and the normally peerless Maggie Smith with her “Here’s a Lady Bracknell I prepared earlier”.
Over on Homeland (which did show early promise) we have a post 9/11 psychodrama – US war hero turns into an ace al-Qaeda operative with a laughably stupid plotline that fell off the back of Jack Bauer’s (him from 24) truck.
Protagonist Nick Brody (Damian Lewis) stares intently at anyone within visual range (he’s got a big secret!) while his nemesis, the CIA intelligence officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), signals she is bipolar by – for the love of God – wildly flicking her eyes around.
Since HBO premiered the televisually groundbreaking and rightfully acclaimed drama series Oz in 1997, there has been a damburst of intelligent and must-see television dramas all going to air trumpeted by the media as “the best ever”.
The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Killing, Mad Men et al are evidence of a “golden age” of television drama, we are told. But are they really? The runaway commercial, critical and Emmy-endorsed success of Downton Abbey and Homeland, two of the most popular drama series airing at present, highlights flaws in the case being made for today’s productions.
The golden age actually occurred decades ago, before box sets, before Twitter, and before sitting in with a wine box and HBO, BBC4 or AMC became the new “going out”. It was then the heavy lifting was done by truly innovative and influential work, and what we view today is the consequence.
Homeland is a bad television tribute act to the real thing – the Israeli drama Hatufim – while Downton Abbey is a pale imitation of Upstairs Downstairs. Trying to make it more of a Remains of the Brideshead Gosford Park can’t disguise its indebtedness, to put it mildly, to the 1970s series.
For Downton’s cook Mrs Patmore see Mrs Bridges, for Carson see Hudson, for the Earl of Grantham see Viscount Bellamy, for Daisy see Ruby. Except that all the Downton characters are poorer facsimiles.
Recognise these plotlines? A sinister footman engages in a homosexual act with an aristocratic visitor; an aristocratic daughter champions the suffragette movement; an aristocratic daughter marries scandalously; an aristocrat goes missing in action during the first World War; an aristocratic female works as a nurse during the same war; the sinking of the Titanic bears a huge consequence for the titled family; the lady of the house gets struck down by the potentially fatal Spanish Flu.
That’s right, they’re all from a popular Sunday night television drama on ITV. It was the aforementioned Upstairs Downstairs and it ran from 1971 to 1975.
To be fair to Downton though, the two original ideas it has had have been superb. In one, a man confined to a wheelchair stands up and starts walking again; in the other, a man with lots of bandages around his head arrives to say he is the rightful heir to Downton Abbey. He has a cup of tea and then walks off the set.