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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

The Sippican Pseudo-Scholastic Seinfeld Misadventure, Part II: Downton Abbey

I made a terrible mistake many years back. I was still talking to “intellectuals” as if they were normal, intelligent persons, instead of addressing them in the manner a French waiter reserves for people on vacation from Omaha. My error was based on a serious misapprehension, one that I was quickly disabused of. In a public forum, I mentioned that I thought Seinfeld was an entirely new and innovative kind of situation comedy, because it was the first time I could recall where every single person that appeared in a comedy show was completely, utterly, and without exception, unlikeable.

It’s important to stress that I didn’t mean, and certainly didn’t say, that I didn’t care for the characters as drawn. I don’t care for lots of characters portrayed on television. You’re not supposed to like some, anyway — they’re villains — and the rest can advance a story without draping a daisy chain around your heart. That’s neither here nor there. I pointed out that no one could like anyone on Seinfeld. It just wasn’t possible. In real life, you’d punch every man-jack in that show –star or stand-in alike — square in the esophagus without warning if no one was looking. Even the elderly women. Did I say even? Well, it’s in the dictionary near especially, and perhaps I got confused.

The scorn that rained down on my head was well-deserved, of course, and shame on me. If you can operate a Pell grant application, but not an apostrophe, everyone on Seinfeld is wonderful. You wish they were your friends. You want to dress like Elaine, and get soup with George. You want to live a life about nothing — and vicariously, at that.

No, you won’t catch me making that mistake again. I refuse to stand here, agog, while you tell me that you find anyone or anything commendable about Downton Abbey.

It’s a big hit, I hear, like Jersey Shore within shouting distance of the actual Jersey, not the ersatz one. I have seen it. I began to play interesting games with it after a while, like a bored teenager at the pool seeing how long he can hold his breath underwater. Who knew you could listen to seventeen straight hours of dialog in a teleplay and not hear one interesting thing emitted from any sentient being onscreen? It’s true; I counted. I feared that the cute doggie tuchus that opens the credits would disgorge some methane and liven things up, and so ruin my streak, but it was not to be. It’s turtles all the way down, and the turtles are upside down in the terrarium and they’ve turned white.

It is innovative, of course, if you think renting a British dustcatching country house and filming Falcon Crest in it is innovative. It achieves the vaunted Seinfeld “show about nothing” level of studied indolence by the back door; it’s a show about everyone being everybody and doing everything all at once, and over and over again, too. There’s a kind of sublime quality to a teleplay with the nerve to simultaneously posit that it’s serious, and also that there’s a character in it that was going to be an Earl but he was on the Titanic and didn’t drown like a human would but caught amnesia from the cold water or something and thought he was Canadian, which is the same thing as amnesia, I think, and then he got roasted in World War I and remembered he was an Earl, but lost interest in that after a week, and drifted off. I’m surprised the writers didn’t have him kidnapped by aliens and anally probed while he was at it, or have him emit spider webs from his wrists or something else more believable and compelling.

Unable to make people interesting by making them say or do interesting things, the writers try to make some people interesting by making them evil instead, as bad writers do, but they don’t seem to understand evil properly and make a hash of that, too. The misbehaviors are of the quotidian variety, like a child standing next to a broken vase and averring that an eagle swooped down and did it, and asking if they might have a cookie anyway. But academics are the prospective audience, I guess, and they’re used to vicious fights over vanishingly small stakes, so apparently all you have to do is have the dastards tell tales out of school and  smoke cigarettes, and they’re instantly Morgan La Fay and Richard the Third, squared.

I gather the gimpy valet is supposed to be the Christ-figure in it. He’s as tedious as a crown of thorns, anyway, so that’s the conclusion I drew. Sanctimony is in the dictionary not too far from stoicism, after all, and le mot juste is not the modern intellectual’s strong suit. After a few hundred thousand examples of his inane selfless behaviour, one’s natural urge is to front anyone up to the task the thirty pieces of silver necessary to get him to lighten up a bit. But examples of ignoble nobility are as numerous as the names in a Chinese phonebook in this dreadful thing, so perhaps I’m wrong to single out anyone for calumny. They shouldn’t hang separately. They should all hang together.

I just don’t know how to approach Downton Abbey. It’s a huge crime against my innate Anglophilia. I mean, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves are going to show up in Downton’s lobby shortly, and I’d hate to have them turned away because of the goings on there in the teens, but I really don’t know how to fix my mood without some sort of purge, a cleansing of the landscape, a Downton delenda est moment. I took a flurry on the World War; hoped for great things from the Spanish Flu; was disappointed that the producers seem to have found the only Irishman that ever lived with absolutely zero charm and no knowledge of how to mix up explosives in their landlady’s bathtub, and no urge to use them, either. There doesn’t seem to be anything left for me to hope for, because I can’t wait around long enough for the Four Weddings and A Funeral playbook to play out, and the funeral in those things never seems to have the mass grave I require in it, so I’m bound to be disappointed.

If the scriptwriters are reading, could you please dismantle Highclere manor, and build an enormous volcano-shaped pyre with its parts and pieces and denizens, and then set it alight? Thanks in advance.

Throw Laura Linney in it, when it gets going good, to appease the gods of ennui.

(Related: MPBN Establishes Phone Line To Help Downton Abbey Devotees Avoid The Pats Game. Because We All Know Girls Don’t Like Looking At Tom Brady

Also: Popular Downton Abbey TV Series Spawns New Books, Including Mrs. Patmore’s Guide To Cankles And Moribund Lady Parts )

21 Responses

  1. Greg, I suppose this means you don't like it?

    I've been watching it with my wife, and I have to say, there are moments when I'd like to slap the characters' faces.

  2. I watched part of the first season, and not only was it dull, cheap, schmaltzy, obvious, and thin compared with the PBS British-accent fare of decades past, but it also crudely transplanted the most pressing political shibboleths of 2012 Upper West Side liberals into the British upper class of a century ago, which is insane and boring. Those people, in real life, were interesting to me because they were very unlike boring familiar modern people. But that's not interesting enough for TV people. They want to admire themselves in a mirror all day. Ooh, a miniseries about Edwardians — what a lovely opportunity to make a miniseries about ourselves!

    I did like the old dowager lady's snippy remarks. But there was a compilation video on YouTube with all of those and nothing else, and that was much better than sitting through the rest of it.

  3. Now you're making me think about why I like Seinfeld, when as you've noted none of the characters are likeable. I think it's because they never get away with being jerks; there are always consequences, and few things are as entertaining as seeing the scales of cosmic justice balance themselves in tidy half-hour increments.

    I can't be bothered to watch Downton Abbey, however, so have no idea whether any balancing takes place. Guess I'm not missing much…

  4. I was going to forward this to my wife, my daughter and my two daughters-in-law (all over 40).

    But on second thought I didn't. I do not want to be banned from the overtaxed manor or shipped to a remote penal colony in another hemisphere.

    al formerly from chgo

  5. To bring it all full circle, I watched part of two episodes and then turned it off thinking, "oh, yadda, yadda, yadda."

  6. I watch it and I love it. But you must remember that when I was a schoolgirl, I would walk home for lunch and watch Sesame Street and then As The World Turns.

    It's a soap opera and if you don't like them, you'll never like Downton.

    I liked it so much that I would scrounge the intertunnel for purloined pixels right after they aired in Merry Olde England. So I've seen the whole bloody series. And I still hate Julian Fellowes.

    But Highclere Castle was used as a hospital during WWI when the real Lady Almena [an American heiress who married the Earl of Carnarvon] made it so. And that Earl went on to discover King Tut's tomb while he was escaping the damp English countryside in the desert. And then he died but is now buried on the highest point of Highclere estate. The real life Earl and Countess are kinda interesting.

    Anyway, at the end of the Christmas Special, I was so angry at Julian Fellowes that I needed an Edwardian palate cleanser. I watched "Brideshead Revisited" with Anthony Edwards, Jeremy Irons, Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud. Now that's a beautiful story with a point. And Lady Cordelia Flyte turns up in Downton as Marchioness Shrimpy.

  7. What I like most about you is that you can, as we say in the South, flat write.

    It doesn't matter that I happen to like Downton Abbey, because I'm a sucker for a British accent and a soap opera [maybe I have low expectations], but you consistently amaze me with your ability to express your opinion so well that you made me pause for a moment and think about whether I should be enjoying DA at all.


    Nah. I'll watch it till it bores me, and it eventually will.

    Write on. I love this place.

  8. It was an eagle, I SWEAR!!!

    Last I heard, college professors are extremely well compensated. Not as well as football coaches, but after the first couple of million, it all kinds of runs together…

  9. With all the buzz among my cohorts, I'd decided to dig my way into Downton Abbey. Now I won't. Your service to humanity can now be calculated in opportunity costs savings of at least one soul.

  10. Sip,

    I have only one small quibble — there were a few likable people on Seinfeld; they were the normal humans who were confused, offended, and/or disgusted by the main characters.

    Hope you are all well in the wilds of western Maine. All the best in 2013 to the Sullivan clan!

  11. I hate to disagree with my hero, Sippian, but…
    I have seen very few British costume dramas that I didn't enjoy, at least a little.
    Downton Abbey is neither the best nor the worst.
    Compared to US television, British TV is mostly better, especially their historical dramas.
    Not always accurate but compared to our TV, at least they get the clothes and hairstyles correct.
    Like the US, they are gradually distorting history more and more to match their PC attitudes but they are not nearly as far gone as Hollywood is.
    However, their best stuff is Dickens, Agatha Christy, and Jane Austen.

  12. I found your contemptuous diatribe against this excellent show to be appallingly hilarious!

    Your work with metaphors, arcane historical references (Falcon Crest? Are you kidding,me?), and French phrases rivals how O'Brien works with wet bars of soap, missing dogs, and handwritten notes to the Turkish Embassy.

    Don't stop. You're the real thing.

    Bob in Manassas, Virginia USA

  13. I watch "Downton Abbey" for the clothes, the hair, the furnishings and the decor. When I am brain-dead on a Sunday night, it's just the thing. Especially liked Maggie Smith's purple hat with grapes.

  14. Mr. Sippi, only my opinion, but you're on to them. Seinfeld never provoked me to consider violence, just quiet derogations and channel changes. Downton I never started.

    Ruth Anne, love the pic heading A Likely Gathering! Been neglecting that blog, I see.

  15. Sam L.,
    I'm the doberman-in-pearls.

    And I'm also the original neglect-o-mom so the fact that I've neglected numerous blogs is right in line.

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