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.
The snob-opera that is Downton – created by Julian Fellowes (and that’s Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford to give him his correct title) – has, in contrast to the original, overcooked its portrait of the British aristocracy as a compassionate and feeling entity.
It all reeks of David Cameron’s patronising Big Society ideal – “patricianism” by any other word. But then Baron Fellowes of West Stafford was given his peerage by David Cameron.
When Upstairs Downstairs writer and actress Jean Marsh had the temerity to say that Downton was an “imitation” of her programme, actor Hugh Bonneville (who plays the Earl of Grantham) replied thus: “Ms Marsh needs a big huggle in the friendly chair.” That’s telling her.
Homeland – “the show that can be reduced to reaction shots of people looking concerned” – as one critic has it, is such a travesty of Hatufim it’s criminal.
Just as Downton microwaved all the goodness out of Upstairs Downstairs, so Homeland is an equally ersatz affair.
Hatufim, which went out on Israeli television in 2010 (and could only manage a buried slot on Sky Arts 1 in these parts despite being of the same quality as the Danish The Killing), focuses on two Israeli soldiers who were kept captive in Lebanon for 17 years before being released.
A military psychologist finds discrepancies in their stories and an investigation is set up to see if the two have been “turned” by their captors. With US television viewers genetically incapable of watching subtitled drama, the show was reshot as Homeland – a compressed and etiolated affair.
You knew something was wrong when the director and writer of Hatufim, Gideon Raff, who is also the executive producer of Homeland, said in an interview: “[Homeland] is a little less realistic [than Hatufim]. . For example, the main characters in Hatufim were told to lose 25 pounds before filming to illustrate the meagre state someone would be in after 17 years’ imprisonment. Nicholas Brody, the central character in Homeland, arrived back in the US looking healthy and well fed.”
Even when today’s television drama is good, so much of the reaction to it erases crucial influences. The Wire owes a big debt to Hill Street Blues, something the show’s creators acknowledged with the roll-call scenes in The Wire’s Western District station – the same roll-call that featured at the beginning of every Hill Street Blues episode.
Prior to Cagney and Lacey women were allowed only highly sexualised roles in police dramas. As actress Tyne Daly (Lacey) says: “Cagney and Lacey allowed women to stop satelliting around male characters on television. The show proved to the powers-that-be that you could sell advertising time around stories about women.” Isn’t The Killing’s Sarah Lund their liberated daughter?
The golden age of TV may not be your HBO dvd box sets, but rather those battered old VHS tapes from the 1970s and 80s.