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Entries in eleanor morrow (48)

Wednesday
Nov102010

In Which We Find The Ideal Mad Men Replacement

Maids, Gays, and the Assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo

by ELEANOR MORROW

Downton Abbey

creator Julian Fellowes

It was long overdue for Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes to be given the tools to a castle of his own. His place is Downton Abbey in 1912, where he reimagines the world of Jane Austen a century later as a far more realistic and wonderful place than those who wrote during the time of its existence could possibly understand.

The result is the complicated partitions of Downton Abbey, an hour-long serial that has more characters than any show ever done in prime time. Even a decade ago it would have taken an act of God to bring the soapy pleasures to our TV screens. Happily, the series that just completed its first season on England's ITV is already out on DVD, and plans are in the works for it to eventually come to NBC as a miniseries. (You can also download the second episode here.)

Much as Avatar ruined the budding romance between James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver, so too did the actual sinking of the Titanic shake things up at this ancient estate. Gifted with three lovely daughters, Robert Crawley (the magnetic Hugh Bonneville) sees the first two male heirs of his family perish in that maudlin disaster, and his distant relation, civil lawyer Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), becomes the inheritor of a massive fortune he never asked for.

John CrawleyThis lighthearted premise has adorned novels since Ms. Austen was in diapers, but the way it plays out is unlike any in British fiction. The real source of Downton's immense wealth is the Earl's monied American wife Cora (Elisabeth McGovern). Since the purpose of the Earl's marriage in the first place was to solidify the financial standing of the estate, it's now subject to English laws, which means that the Earl's first born daughter Mary (the weird-looking Michelle Crockery in star-making role) is shit out of luck when it comes to her future now that her fiance is holding hands with Kate Winslet in the deep.

Matthew and Mary CrawleyWhen we read novels that take place at the end of the English empire, we feel an affection for the customs of the period. The servants of Downton by and large don't share this optimistic view of the cosmos. The inclusion of the trials of the servant class was what make Gosford Park one of Robert Altman's most touching and vital films, and there are really no better protagonists than maidservants, butlers, and footmen.

As in Downton Abbey's literary opposite numbers, the real protagonist of the show is a heroine — Mary's maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). Most of the experienced servants are given perilously complex portraits, and Anna is no different. Her love story with the estate's new arrival, former soldier turned manservant John Bates (Brendan Coyle) constitutes a breakthrough performance for both of them, and with record audiences, the show has already been renewed for a second eight episode season.

The show's second offering deals with how uncomfortable the country solicitor who will inherit Downton feels upon the ubiquitous presence of his manservant. Matthew Crawley is a spirited capitalist, and surely the idea of having a servant of one's own should feel strange to most of us. Downton Abbey's servants learn of this truth and others as they intuit the unfolding of events far better than their masters. But there Fellowes does an exciting dance, where he proves that the idea of the wise yet lowly individual's sagacity is purely an illusion of the masters themselves.

Mistakes were made. Downtown Abbey looks back at this period with something like the careful ministrations of Trey Parker's Captain Hindsight.

How silly the death of one duke and his wife seems a hundred years or so later, where we can see it for what it wasn't rather than what it was! Something the European Union took from us is the ability to imagine these places making war on another again, as if it were the first time we had observed it from across the Atlantic.

The show's first season ends with the onslaught of the War to End All Wars, the most significant event in history about which most Americans know almost nothing about. Men in the movies are always returning from war, so it is somewhat exciting and macabre to see a young man, in this case the wonderfully manipulative homosexual footman, go to one.

Americans dispense with their history when it is irrevelant to the present; the men and women of England have an empire to look back on and sigh appreciatively. What if we were watching the fall of the primacy of our civilization, dressed up in colorful attire and made fragnant by the mere passage of time? It is impossible for an American to truly understand these attitudes, because when she walks into a church she can be sure it is no more than four hundred or so years old.

Mary's aunt, called the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is played by the very familiar Maggie Smith. When she learns that her niece has been divested of the Downton fortune, she quickly springs into action to wed Mary to the new heir. Unlike the girl's overbearing Earl of a father, the Dowager Countess accomplishes her aims indirectly, and even while painting her as something of an antagonist to Matthew Crawley's equally headstrong mother, the show can't resist pointing out that she is the one in control. It is a mastery of the disappearing world.

Comparisons to Mad Men are inevitable and complimentary; but Julian Fellowes is no Matthew Weiner. (Almost everything has to be compared to Don Draper, or else how would we know what it is?) The 61-year old screenwriter penned romance novels in the 1970s under female pen names, and he desperately wants us to love the men and women in this milieu. In fact, the show is so redemptive that when one of the characters fails us, we might make excuses for them as we would with our own child.

In a way, of course, that is what is comforting about classics like Emma and Pride and Prejudice besides the gainful employment they offer to Colin Firth. The love affair between classically acted and styled hopefuls cannot really compare to a truer love between an audience and its wayward heroine, who is stranded on a dangerous road, lacking the proper footing for her horse. To talk your way out of such challenges represents the exact reason young people get in them in the first place.

To us, Downton Abbey is an even more foreign conglomeration than for the country that originated it. The dialogue is the best on television; the garish sets are unlike anything done outside of pay cable. In their arms we are transported: the dancing, the hunting, the endless meals might as well be taking place in sub-Saharan Africa, or on the moon. Here is a place where no secret remains for long, where we can go and escape into a life more sheltered than our own.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She last wrote in these pages about the show Skins. She tumbls here.

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"Seven Sons" - Mini Mansions (mp3)

"Girls" - Mini Mansions (mp3)

"Crime of the Season" - Mini Mansions (mp3)

Monday
Jul262010

In Which We Get You When You're Vulnerable

All We Want To Do Is Please You

by ELEANOR MORROW

Mad Men

creator Matthew Weiner

The idea that life itself is best treated as an artistic canvas is nothing new. Byron was the most syphilitic of artists who embraced this idea, but it has Christian beginnings, too, the concept of acting like someone else, someone who's not you, for the benefit of others and for the pleasure of God. The most recent example of this phenomenon is Don Draper, and we are just along for the ride.

Don learns different lessons from his experiences than the public at large. He heads out on a date with Roger's wife's friend Bethany (True Blood's Anna Camp) and envies her backstage work in the theatre; he even tells her it's exciting! Don harbors a secret weird jealousy for what most of us laugh at, and this is the key to understanding this most loathsome of men. And Don is horrible. They have toned it down a lot by making him seem nice to his kids and whores, but he's about as pleasant as a burned roast.

Don's belief is that he can step into the role of the consumer like no other. He regularly sews and gets out his shinebox like he's nostalgic for the Depression. Romanticizing the past is a common American problem, and since Don hates his past, all he has are the gestures and the skills of poverty. What was the good life for him? When he forever ruined his kids' elementary school teacher for other men?


Draper is unique in that he really has no golden time to look back on. We've never seen the halcyon days after the Drapers were first married (although NB Weiner that'd be a good way to get January Jones a scene where she's not on her back). Years in Korea weren't exactly full of self-empowerment for the young Dick Whitman. Don has nothing to go back to, so he gets his magnetism from living continuously in the present. This modern impulse was first noticed in primitive Neanderthal tribes, once they figured out how to pay for sex.

Three thousand years later (give or take), the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is riding in miniature on the dark side of Don Draper's testicles. Where are all the bright shining lights in this company? What about that dude who got his story published in The New Yorker? If they debut Fred Armisen as a love interest for his real life wife, or if Maya Rudolph appears on this show in any fashion, I will call the police.

On the plus side, it's amazing Christina Hendricks found the time to act between photoshoots and interviews and Wal-Mart openings and making her homely husband eat cat food. When Mad Men's characters stop changing and become static, they lose their significance in the drama. In the case of Pete Campbell, that's not nice, that's just a nice sweater. Hopefully now that Pete's wife is a regular on Community, he can start a fledging romance with Draper's housekeeper Celia, who is amazingly the only non-white character on the show.


In better news, Peggy will finally get the love triangle we're all waiting for. Yes, the Church of Scientology has permitted the first male-female-male fictional love triangle in thetan history since Keeping the Faith, and Peggy's inability to decide between two foppish nerds beginning to carry her purse will likely result in her putting them both before Don and letting Satan sort it all out. Gosh bail for fighting over a ham was high in those days!

It would entertain me to no end if Peggy went through the entire plotline of Goodfellas, including hiding her cross in front of her in-laws and leaving Pete Campbell to die in the desert. Four seasons of watching her toady to Don are enough. If you can sell jai alai, you can sell anything. Don is about to have a new level of clientele; let's just hope he's done with Conrad Hilton because Lost already answered the question, "Who is Paris Hilton's father?" (Daniel Faraday.) 

Mad Men unwittingly has taken on a new protagonist, which indicates he's probably two short episodes away from stepping in front of a bus. After undermining Don last season, Henry is ostensibly in love with Betty Draper, and he shows it by only permitting sex when his anus can casually rest on the car's gearshift. You can tell where his affection for Mrs. Draper is headed by the look in his eyes. He resembles Jack Nicholson about to flee the scene of an accident.

Henry's decision about whether to keep Betty Draper around takes on a new significance. It is a test of Don's world view. If Henry can't back up his big talk about wanting to be with Betty, then it doesn't matter whether anyone else can. Betty left the biggest bullshitter in the world, but he's not so bad if she left him for a bigger one.

Like Don's bizarre date with Bethany Van Nuys, advertising started being condescending rather than airy and pleasant at some point, and the industry met with better results because of it. "It's not even an advertisement until the last thirty seconds," Don tells the charming vet who couldn't think of a better headline than 'A Man From a Town With No Name.'

I have a list of people he could have called for that story, and it begins and ends with the guy his wife had sex with in a restaurant bathroom last season. Don was shocked that all he had to do was treat an Advertising Age reporter with one leg like he does the rest of the people in his life: as if they were something he had to wipe off his shoe.

Since the beginning of time, people have secretly loved to be talked down to. Have you ever read the Ten Commandments? They sit at approximately the same artistic standard as Jeff Koons and John Slattery's acting: utterly insulting to anyone who knows about art or portraying a powerful advertising executive as he was forty years ago.

The client becomes the child because it is the client on who the advertising must succeed for the agency to get paid. A bit of random publicity for two Jewish woman fighting over the last ham isn't exactly a Super Bowl commercial — the intended effect was on the client, who told Peggy that "it's a shame someone had to get hurt, but if it means people are buying more of our wonderful hams..." Yet the idea of pleasing the client first is woefully inefficient. Why spend time seeing whether you can convince the person already predisposed to the product?

This is akin to a revelation for Don. He becomes violently angry at his swimsuit clients because they live in the past. Don Draper of course hates their aversion to convince others to buy their products, and he calls them "prudes" as if he was on his way to Point Pleasant in a one piece. Don's advertisement has no chance of pleasing the client, but he's a more artistic manipulator than that. When sales don't rise, they'll know where to turn. And if they slap him a little on the cheek during sex, he'll charge half-price.

Don is changing the game by treating the client, and the man who married his wife, and his protege, and his prostitute, and a Broadway extra/Steve Newlin's wife, and Roger Sterling himself as children. His own children he already made into accessories. And why should you expect a child to turn into an adult if you haven't taught her how?

That would require thinking ahead, and Don is more like his daughter Sally than anyone else on Mad Men. When he kisses the girl hello at the beginning of the most boring weekend of anyone's life, Sally flinches. His kiss is the acknowledgment of what's happened to all of them, and she brushes it off as quickly as her father.  The reality of the past is no more than an imposition on the freedom of the present.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find her work here. She last wrote in these pages about the UK show Skins. She tumbls here.

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"All Hail Dracula!" - Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (mp3)

"Stuart Gets Lost Dans Le Metro" - Someone Still Love You Boris Yeltsin (mp3)

"Critical Drain" - Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (mp3)

Wednesday
Jun302010

In Which If You Want To Be Happy Don't Think

We've Been Hanging Out

by ELEANOR MORROW

Skins

creators Brian Elsley and Jamie Brittain

All art about young people comes across as hopelessly naive and bracingly sentimental. Kids changed all that, but it wasn't very good. Harmony Kormine went on to a sterling career as a writer of less comprehensible films, MTV ran Undressed to corner the market in PG-13 pr0n, Larry Clark founded an island in the South Pacific where he could be with whoever he wants, and then E4's Skins tried to fill the role of "telling us all about our young people."

Set in Bristol, the show follows kids through sixth form, when they are 16 and 17 years old. The idea was to follow kids from relatively difficult economic backgrounds, although we might want to rethink those ideas about class. In most ways the men and women of Skins are identical to their upper-class mirror images. Because Skins is one of the most imaginatively conceived shows of this genre, it deserves an American audience, and not in its soon-to-be dumbed down form.

What sorts of children are these? For the most part, they are desperate for love, so transparently pathetic that we forget about the evil things they do. The protagonist of the show's first two seasons, Tony (Nicholas Hoult) is straight out of Cruel Intentions, but hold on, because we never can hate anybody we know everything about. (It's partly why we love our children.) If they make a Barbra Streisand biopic  — scratch that, when they make Barbra Streisand biopic she will come off as completely sympathetic and will most likely be portrayed by Alexa Chung.

The early virtues of the show consisted of its variously successful attempts at an earthy realism. You can't help but imagine that a beer-soaked copy of Less Than Zero was being plagiarised wholesale in writer's meetings, but the resulting blend of regular drug abuse, mental illness, and total alienation from the world is highly entertaining. Rebooting the series every two years was an inspired idea, and also ensures that Skins alumnae can come back to be killed off, or turned into M.I.A. in the case of the minority representative Jal.

It takes a special madness to take the joy out of being a child, but we are accustomed to effecting this as quickly as possible. It is not for the Luddites that we bemoan this worldly process, it is because we are sapping the thrill of discovery from new travellers. Instead of a reason for joy, education is turned into something we resent because of what it takes away from the rest of our lives rather than what it adds to it.

Kids portrayed this in a way acceptable to Roger Ebert, which is itself a kind of violation. There was something deeply disturbing about watching HIV-positive Telly infect the neighborhood, although it's not as horrifying to watch today and in fact feels like a period piece along the lines of Emma or The Bostonians.

The use of birth control on Skins is relegated to those moments when teenage sex is planned in advance, which is to say never.  Condoms feature prominently in only one of the show's episodes, and then only to emphasize that Anwar (Dev Patel) has never had sex. This is perhaps a subtle hint to Britain's youth to keep reproducing at a rate commensurate with that of their Muslim peers. The sex mostly consists of shifting between various sexual positions in a rough manner so as to indicate eagerness. Once, in the first season, eight straight lines of dialogue were "I love you", and it was accurate in every case.

if only your mother from slumdog millionaire could see you now...oh wait Joyless and solemn the boys of Skins are, though the women rarely fare better. The sexist march of lowered expectations is painfully obvious in Michelle (April Pearson) whose greatest desire was to ape her mother's tremendous series of husbands. The men, in contrast, are burdened with all of the unpleasantness and as such are permitted a greater freedom of expression.

The sort of friends you have when you're young are always a sorry lot. A neighborhood is full of them — you simply can't avoid the people you live with, any more than you can avoid having extra-sized ears if you're Katie Holmes. Most entries into this genre turn the neighborhood youth into adults with smaller bodies, and Skins does some of this, including the reading passions of its erudite antihero.

Three o'clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do. There's also a hefty dose of afterschool special, proving straights and gays equally enjoy sitting on the green, crying and smoking spliffs. Going to sixth form is pretty much a dream with a lot of free time and your classmate is the guy from Slumdog Millionaire. Without mentioning the contemporary culture (outside of dubstep and heroin injections) more than once, Skins is entirely of this time, where some kind of unpleasant notoriety is always lurking on the periphery.

One of the biggest myths about adolescence is that it is full of important decisions. In fact, adolescence is all about never having to make a decision. Can we even imagine what an alien race would think of us, going from piano lesson to the orthodontist with a frequency unknown outside of this dying planet? More than anything, contemporary day-to-day is fraught with completely variegated experience, an acquired taste for most of us and entirely unknown to those who've never experienced it. The adults of Skins, because they're from the previous generation, can never really understand.

It's actually somewhat funny that a show which insists on portraying the reality behind young lives is so painfully bad at imagining the mystery and purpose of adult ones. Yes, things are rightly more dramatic when experienced for the first time. This is a strong virtue of such moments, distinguishing them from everything else. But it is a weakness to be innocent.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She last wrote in these pages about the HBO series True Blood and The Wire.

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"Good Times Gonna Come" - Aqualung (mp3)

"Sea of Glass" - Tom Middleton (mp3)

"Coconut Skins" - Damien Rice (mp3)

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