Posts Tagged ‘Downton Abbey’

GuiltyPleasuresby Tricia Lunt, English faculty

To escape embarrassment, I might pretend indifference, but more often than not, I will succumb to my guilty pleasures.

I feel slightly self-conscious while watching ANTM, that’s America’s Next Top Model for those in the know. And yet, however unfortunate it may be, I still like watching the models complain and cry in response to their often inane make-overs. I like watching Tyra Banks behave as though she single-handedly runs the modeling industry. I like the exotic and moronic photo shoots because they remind me just how artistically complicated and compelling an advertisement for lip gloss can be, and just how artificial every little bit of what we consider beautiful or stylish or artistic is. The taste makers might very well be telling an elaborate joke. Every time we buy in, we serve up the punch line. Just ask the emperor’s tailor.

Another seriously guilty pleasure back for another season is Downton Abbey. I am devotee, so much so that actually put the date and time of the premiere on my calendar. Despite the fact that it airs on PBS, via the BBC, high art it ain’t. The use of mythological (sword of Damocles, anyone?) and literary references (this week’s shout-out to Jane Austen’s masterpiece Pride and Prejudice) can’t conceal the bodice ripping underneath. Posh accents, opulent rooms, and rich costuming aside, it is a soap opera.

badtasteWhat makes a pleasure (or preference) guilty? It must be common, low (as in the equally problematic and xenophobic term “low brow”), or beneath us. It is most certainly not good. At best, it may be kitsch, or is it camp? In order for a pleasure to be a guilty one, we must sense that the thing itself—usually some artifact associated with pop culture—is somehow bad. Maybe we might even like it because it is bad.

The “guilty pleasure” leads is to an investigation of and interrogation of taste. Good taste pretends to dictate a hierarchy. Certain things like bad television, schlocky pop songs, unconvincing actors might be popular, but they are not what we know to be good.

My friend and artist Matthew Schlagbaum explores the nature of “good taste” in his work. A book he’s consulted Let’s Talk about Love: A Journey to the End of Taste has some interesting things to say about Celine Dion’s worldwide popularity. Like any true artist, Matt reminds me to contemplate ideas and draw my own conclusions rather than relying on external judgments.

Countless television programs, songs, and films are dismissed as crap, but remain beloved nonetheless. Good or not, we know what we like.

 

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty.

If I’m right, you’re getting set to watch the second episode of Downton Abbey having put all the dinner dishes in the dishwasher, brushed your teeth, made a good strong cup or pot of tea or coffee, and are about to consume half a dozen donuts, or a huge slice of banana bread, or 3 humungous scoops of double rich, double good, chocolate chip ice cream with a bit of chocolate sauce on top.

Now I must admit, in all candor, that I can also imagine I’m dead wrong and you’re not about to consume a huge chunk of banana Imagebread–not at all. Instead it ‘s a medium sIzed piece of pumpkin bread with a maple walnut topping. Or perhaps I’m wrong because you have no plan to eat the pumpkin bread or the banana bread. And then again maybe I’m off base since you’re not now, nor have you ever intended to watch Downton Abbey. For you, it hath no relish of salvation.

Well, thankfully, this is a free country and you don’t have to watch the show if you don’t want to. However, let me also make use of this freedom and sing some praises for this mega popular BBC series for it’s got an awful lot going for it.

Let’s start with pageantry. The show sports loads of pageantry, but this is pageantry you can enjoy snuggling up to munching a Baby Ruth, or some pretzels, or that banana bread I mentioned earlier. This isn’t the kind where you have to sit in a cold, concrete block, stiff benched cathedral listening to soggy bromides mixed with especially pompous platitudes where you end your several hour stay furious and exhausted.

Au contraire. Watching the pageantry at Downton, you find yourself at the end of the show wanting more of the stuff. Pageantry at Downton is like a pageant–I mean it’s like fun. It’s a holiday, an Olympic event; it’s a kind of rock concert you want to dress up for. Or watching puts you in a festive big hotel wedding mood with mounds of shrimp and oodles of oysters there for the taking. And all the chocolate you can get your hands on. I mean some folks are even wearing tuxedos and shiny dresses and five inch high heels.

But here’s the thing. If you don’t like pageantry that’s perfectly OK. You can still be entertained for Downton provides you a wonderful opportunity to enjoy despising the mindless excesses of early 20th century English aristocrats who never have had to squeeze into a packed redline rush hour train car during a January snow storm or 100 degree Chicago heat wave in July. By all means, let your flood of opprobrium for these folks flow.

On the other hand, you may prefer warmly sharing in the more modest sorts of joys and concerns which are offered the downstairs staff. For they too have their loves, and dreams, and anxieties and interesting conundrums they work hard to favorably resolve. The show doesn’t present the downstairs staff as flat, boring, card board creatures who we, the audience, don’t worry about or identify with.

ImageFor the point is that both the upstairs and downstairs folks are shown sympathetically which is to say they’re both shown in an attractive light. Whether their portrayal is historically accurate I must report, with some consternation, I’m unable to say since I have no first hand knowledge or experience of people who lived these kind of lives, nor do I have much book learning under my belt to help me decide. But what I can report with some confidence is that at by the time an episode has ended I feel as if the better angels of our nature have had many opportunities to come forth.

Downton Abbey is in its fourth season and enjoys a huge viewership. According to several surveys, it’s easily the most popular TV show in England. And it’s amassed a large American audience as well. The most frequent explanation for its popularity is that both here and in England people harbor secretly and not so secretly a huge wish to live the lavish life style enjoyed by the aristocrats of old. I mean waking up surrounded by tons of Spode or Haviland cups and saucers and plates amid a sea of sterling silver trays, and tea sets, and immense serving spoons, and napkin rings, and silverware. And gorgeous sloping lawns, and fancy cars, and a downstairs staff to minister to one’s every whim.

However, my explanation for the show’s success points in the opposite direction. I believe Downton’s popularity rests on the way the show shows not how the downstairs staff takes care of the upstairs aristocrats but on how both stairs take care of each other. Care and concern and love and affection doesn’t travel in one direction only.

What we learn from watching Downton Abbey is that our probable preconceptions about aristocratic life were wrong. Contrary to the idea that the old world was composed to two groups of people who were very very different, Downton portrays a universe where upstairs and downstairs people share a common humanity and common concerns. Right is right and wrong is wrong and sometimes it’s hard to know exactly which is which. Moreover, both upstairs and downstairs folks are basically pretty nice, but some aren’t and the ones who aren’t sure end up creating an awful lot of trouble for everyone, upstairs and downstairs alike.