I almost never use the word “romantic” to describe sexual attraction and relationships. I generally mean it to indicate that something involves heroic archetypes. Sadly, I’m afraid that I got this way reading Ayn Rand. However, it is a far more useful word when used this way. I think it is a mistake to cloak sexual love in airy words.
This comes to mind because I just watched the first season of a very romantic television show: Downton Abbey. My sister Kim has been bugging me to watch it because she likes it and thought it would appeal to me. I checked and noticed that it was created by Julian Fellowes, whose script for Gosford Park is as great as anything ever created for a film. So I got very excited for about a minute, before forgetting that Fellowes had anything to do with the series. But yesterday, I finally sat down and watched the show. And I swear I am not making this up, I though, “Oh! Julian Fellowes create this!” It was only after talking with my sister that I was helped to remember that, in fact, I already knew it was by Fellowes.
The series is very good and I find it deeply affecting. This is mostly because the vast majority of the characters are so noble. And, of course, the characters are rather familiar. Bates seems very much like Parks from Gosford Park, for example. But Fellowes does a good job of mixing up things that it all feels comfortable without being stale. It also shares about the same mix of up and downstairs plot, with the downstairs getting a bit more of the focus.
The first episode works the best. As the series progresses, it gets more and more far fetched. Even apart from this, there is the continuing problem of Thomas and O’Brien, the male and female Iagos of the series. It would be one thing if they, like Iago in Othello, were critical to the plot. But they are nothing but working in the alleys—mostly making trouble for Bates. Add to this that Downton Abbey is a modern drama with otherwise fairly well developed characters, and these two create problems that are much bigger than any of their evil machinations. Namely: they add an unwelcome melodrama to an otherwise fairly sophisticated modern drama.
There is a theme that is everywhere in Fellowes’ work: the responsibility of rank. I am deeply divided on this point. On the one hand it is true: the rich have traditionally had responsibilities that went with their positions. On the other: it is much easier to be rich, and today the rich have no such obligations. So I wonder why we talk about this. The idea that the rich have responsibilities continues on today, of course. But it now manifests itself in the myth of the Job Creator where the rich flatter themselves they are doing good moral work when all they’re really doing is getting richer. But in Downton Abbey we see a very clueless young man learn that his valet needs a sense of self-worth as much as he does. It is a nice sequence.
Overall, Downton Abbey is a very good series. It does have its problems. Sometimes, I think the directors try too hard; there is too much Steadicam work and artistic touches that pull me out of the story. There are character problems, as I’ve noted. And I don’t think that Fellowes does a good enough job as Executive Producer—there is not enough subplot resolution; I feel that the series is nothing but loose ends going forward. But all of this is transcended. I have enjoyed spending time with these characters and I want to spend more time with them.
I really liked this bit of dialog by Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), “When something bad happens, there’s no point in wishing it had not happened. The only option is to minimize the damage.” Alas.
 I am going to try to be a little more understandable. Iago is the villain in Othello. He is the one who, through insinuation and other machinations, convinces Othello that his new bride is unfaithful to him. This causes Othello to kill her and then when he learns the truth to kill himself. Whenever I talk about Iago, what I’m getting at is not so much that he is evil. It is rather that there would be no story without Iago. Truly, Iago is a pathetic plot device. Basically, because he is evil he causes trouble that the plot depends upon. A modern drama generally provides much more motivation for an “evil” character. In Othello, Iago does have some motivation: Othello passed him over for a promotion. Is that enough of a motivation? I don’t think so. Similarly, Thomas doesn’t like Bates because Bates has the job he had temporarily. Is this enough for him to still be plotting years later? Again: I don’t think so.