No, it’s not Festivus again, but I am about to air some grievances…with Masterpiece Theatre. As per repeated requests (from Ellen and our McDad) I am going to attempt to break down just what it is that has disappointed me about Downton Abbey particularly and Masterpiece shows in general lately. When I went on a little Facebook Rant after the Season 4 premier some people were not too happy with me (although a few admitted they had secretly felt the same way). This is not personal — if you enjoy something, I don’t want to take that enjoyment away from you. It’s just that I am disappointed in the show, and in a lot of the new Masterpiece shows, which I have enjoyed in the past but with which I am now finding myself unsatisfied. I will attempt to dissect the reasons why I am feeling this way using an unbiased third party who died a very long time ago: Aristotle.
The philosopher Aristotle wrote an analysis of Poets (writers) and their art (poetry and stage drama) called The Poetics. He was, in a sense, the very first theater critic, and so I think it’s fitting to go back to the basics and look at how Aristotle judged the entertainment of his time (which included such true masterpieces as the Odyssey and the Theban and Orestian Trilogies) and then use those same criteria to judge our modern tele-dramas — in this case, Downton Abbey.
(Some of the Poetics, mainly the part dealing with Comedy, is missing, and so we can only go from what Aristotle wrote of epic poetry and Tragedy, but I do think it’s general enough to apply to the serial drama we are discussing. For the purposes of this discussion, where he says “Tragedy” I will say “play,” and assume that covers television shows. Okay? Okay.)
Aristotle breaks the play down into 6 component parts, which are listed here in descending order of importance:
Plot, Character, Thought, and Diction, are essential parts of the play; Song and Spectacle are “Embellishments.” Plot is of the utmost importance.
Why? All Art, according to Aristotle, is Imitation; and a play is an imitation of action and of life, so the plot — the series of events that make up the action — is the soul of the play. I won’t go into lots of specifics about Character, Thought, and Diction — suffice it to say, that’s basically how different types of characters are presented, the way in which they speak and express ideas, and the actual manner of their speech. These things are important, and all serve to support the plot, but should not come before the plot in importance. Song and Spectacle come last because they are the least important — as “Embellishments” they are only there to add to what has already been presented in the plot and characters.
And here’s where we come to my critique of Downton Abbey. It seems like what everyone loves most about the show –The gorgeous sets and scenery! Sweeping music! Those beautiful period costumes! — all fall clearly into the category of Spectacle and Song — they are Embellishments.
Even the clever one-liners from the Dowager Countess, which I quite enjoy myself, fall into the category of Diction, Thought, and Character — they are funny because of HOW she says them, WHAT she says, and WHO her character is — which are all secondary to the plot. And not one critic, much as they love this show, will say that the plot of Downton Abbey is anything but chock full of holes. Large swathes of time disappear and are never mentioned, huge plot points take place offstage entirely, way too many problems are solved by letters arriving, deus ex machina-style, in the ta-da! nick of time. I am not the only person to have recognized or commented on this, but it seems like we’re all so dazzled by the spectacle that we don’t care.
Hmm, that was only one of my points and it’s taken a while to make already, so I guess I’ll let that one sink in and maybe continue with the rest of my points next week. I will leave you for now with the genius of Edith With Googly Eyes. This is why the Internet is awesome: