Sunday, February 19, 2012

Memo from NYC

Tonight on PBS is the season finale of the British show "Downton Abbey." If you've never seen it, it's a costume drama about the complex lives and loves of a British noble family in early 20th century England -- and the lives and loves of their servants. It has a great cast, gorgeous production values, and is a lot of fun. The show was a big hit in the UK and is now a big hit here. Mr NYC is, for one, a big fan.

It's fast becoming the water cooler show of the Yuppie set -- think "Sopranos", think "Sex and the City", think "Mad Men."

But as good as "Downton Abbey" is, haven't we seen this show before?

Well, yes. It was called "Upstairs, Downstairs" and it ran for five seasons in the early 1970s. At the time, it was as huge a show as there has ever been. It was about a wealthy British political family in -- guess -- early 20th century Britain, and their servants. It was a high class soap opera but so much more. "Upstairs, Downstairs" was the first show to ever reach more than a billion viewers worldwide (the second show to do this was "Baywatch" in the '90s) and it won lots of Emmys.

Last year the wife and I watched the whole series on Netflix, right after seeing the first seasons of "Downton Abbey." And while "Downton Abbey" is good, "Upstairs, Downstairs" is truly great TV. 

What makes it great? Because it was a stark, unsentimental, visceral look at the English class system, and how it warped and distorted and corrupted the lives of both masters and servants. They all seemed trapped by this system that was bigger than all of them, and they were all quietly dying inside. Also, the performances in "Upstairs, Downstairs" were so powerful, you truly believed that the masters had been rich and privileged all their lives and the servants came from poverty. The sexual, familial, and social tension in every scene of the show was almost unbearable. That's great drama.

With "Downton," on the other hand, you get the sense that the masters and servants are all great pals and that this English class system is actually quite a great thing. And the masters and the servants seem, for the most part, indistinguishable from each other. 

As the author of this article says about "Downton Abbey"

Edward Gorey, that beloved and prolific purveyor of doomed Edwardians, once told an interviewer that his mission in life was to make everybody as uneasy as possible, because, he said, “that’s what the world is like.” What “Downton Abbey” offers, by contrast, is a utopian version of the past that’s custom made for the present sociopolitical morass. It presents a system so perfect that it can weather any upheaval, smooth out any wrinkle, absorb any shock. It refers incessantly to the coming collapse of the social order and then sets up its conflicts like bowling pins to be swiftly knocked down and neatly swept away.

And drama, like life, is never neat. So while we can all enjoy "Downton Abbey", I would urge all Mr NYC readers to get "Upstairs, Downstairs" on Netflix now. 

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