Saturday, February 2, 2013

4 Things Writers Love about Downton Abbey

It’s more popular than religion, it clogs up Facebook every Sunday night, and it’s an out-of-the-park homer for PBS. I know—what’s not to love about Downton Abbey? But there’s more to this show than scheming footmen, Maggie Smith’s one-liners, and “Bates is hot.” For writers, the show is a special pleasure because it hits on so many issues that authors grapple with all the time.

1) It’s a lesson in potboiler writing.
Like many bestselling authors, Downton creator Julian Fellowes keeps viewers engaged by employing two simple strategies that any fiction writer can use: delayed gratification and sudden setbacks.
       Delayed gratification sometimes plays out over entire seasons, with a desired result—Bates being cleared of the murder charge, or Matthew warming up to Mary—getting pushed farther and farther away as the complications mount and hopes are dashed. But Fellowes also uses this trick in miniature, teasing delayed gratification out of the smaller moments. Remember when Mary was trying to figure out whether someone in the house had mailed a crucial letter that would save the estate from ruin? She went to the servants’ dining room to ask the staff if anyone posted the letter, and no one had. She turned away, deflated, and the viewer’s hopes were thwarted too—what would happen to Downton now? But then Daisy, the kitchen maid, came into the room and asked what was going on—and it turned out she posted the letter, and all was saved. OK, it was manipulative, but notice that Fellowes didn’t give us an easy win even in this small scene; a delay of a minute or two stretches out the drama that much more and keeps us watching.*
       Then there’s the other side of the coin: While he’s delaying our gratification, Fellowes litters the show with unexpected setbacks and tragedies. Brides are jilted; people get sick and die. And while that kind of continual jarring would make most of us crazy in real life, in a story, it’s a surprise—and fun, in a roller-coaster sort of way**. It makes us wonder what’s around the next corner, and the next, and we keep watching to see what disaster will happen this time. So while Fellowes pulls us along on the rope of delayed gratification, he smacks us silly with sudden tragedy. And we like it, because it’s good storytelling.

2) It’s bubbliciously soapy.
Most Downton fans will guiltily admit that part of its attraction is that it’s a big soap opera—a serial about love and betrayal among a large cast of characters. So were Dallas and Dynasty (a friend used to call them Dallasty); so were ER and NYPD Blue and even the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, in its way—and so are countless successful shows on the air now. There’s a reason why TV writers draw from that well again and again: The serial structure hooks viewers, and the machinations keep them watching. Fellowes has avoided some old soap clichés—so far, we haven’t had any babies switched at birth or lovers who turn out to be siblings, though this season I smell a dead-person-who’s-not-really-dead (the heir in India?). But he has trotted out a few chestnuts like amnesia (the soldier with the burned face), villains who do evil just because they’re spiteful (Thomas and O’Brien), ill-starred lovers who have to overcome outlandishly complicated obstacles (Mary and Matthew), and the old standby of rich people who keep their cognac in glass decanters and are constantly in danger of “losing everything” and being forced to flee to their spare mansion, the little one with only 10 bedrooms.

3) Julian Fellowes is a late bloomer.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Julian Fellowes. I first noticed him when he was an actor on the BBC series Monarch of the Glen in the early 2000s. He played Kilwillie, the mischievous blueblood neighbor, and got stuck doing a lot of slapstick scenes. But he always played that character with zeal and a deliciously snooty accent. And it turned out that at the same time, he was quietly nurturing his career as a writer, penning the screenplay for Gosford Park that later won him an Oscar. He also wrote two bestselling novels. And his dual careers of acting and writing really took wing when he was in his 50s—older than I am now. I love that.

4) It ain’t Big Rich England.
These days, we’re plagued with a bevy of “big rich” reality shows—I call them “fat-lip shows”—like Big Rich Texas and The Real Housewives of This City That Will Not Surprise You by Having Rich Housewives in It. These shows take us inside the mahogany walls of America’s zillionaires and show us that 1) they rarely work, 2) they bicker constantly, 3) they fuss a lot about their appearance, and 4) they take a long time to eat dinner. Of course, Downton Abbey is like that too, but it’s all concocted by a writer***, which somehow makes it more palatable. And, hallelujah, it gives that writer a really good job.


* The creators of the sci-fi show Eureka had a similar storytelling trick that they called “the big button”: The heroes slave away through the whole show on a machine that will stop some looming disaster, and in the last act, just as all hell is breaking loose, they finish the machine and push the magic button—and nothing happens. Or something happens that appears to save the world, but that causes another disaster, and they have to solve that. By the end, the viewer is spent and satisfied from all the tension and release (and that connection between storytelling and sex, folks, is a whole other topic).

** I can’t imagine that it’s healthy to desensitize ourselves to tragedy like this all the time. It might explain in part why we’re willing to go to war and don’t step in to stop human rights violations. We accuse kids of being desensitized to violence through video games, but anyone who consumes popular entertainment—perhaps even novels—is in the same boat. Or is it good to have thick skins? Would we all die of fear if we weren’t toughened up by tales of little kids being cooked by witches and eaten by wolves?

*** Reality shows do employ writers, at least to edit the footage and make the “stories” hang together better for viewers. And writers for some of the game-show types, like Survivor and The Great Race, basically contrive the whole show. (Great article here on the inside scoop by a reality-show writer.) One show, Storage Wars, recently suffered a scandal when former star Dave Hester accused the producers of planting valuable items in the storage lockers to give an edge to some competitors and make the stories more compelling. I must come out here and admit that, scandal or no, I love Storage Wars—it’s one of my favorite guilty pleasures, and I’m squarely on Team Brandi. I was also a big fan of the tragic-in-retrospect Anna Nicole. One critic summed up my feelings about that show: “Why doesn’t somebody put down the camera and help her?”