Monday, September 5, 2016

Poor Edith: Fear and Loathing on the Melodrama Trail...

I have said this before and I am going to say it again, I am fascinated by what I see as the irrational hatred and fear of film and television melodrama or soap operas out there in film and television criticism land. The reasons for my fascination are simple. Just as there is great drama, great tragedy, great comedy, and great detective shows, just as there is good drama, good tragedy, good comedy, and good detective shows, just as there are middling dramas, middling tragedies, middling comedies, and middling detective shows, just as there are poor drama, poor tragedy, poor comedies, and poor detective shows, and just as there are awful dramas, awful tragedies, awful comedies, and awful detective shows, there are great, good, middling, poor, and awful melodramas.

So why the irrational hatred and fear of melodramas? Historians, sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and psychologists want to know. Some commentators attribute the irrational hatred and fear of melodramas to paternalism. Melodramas are often, as a number of critics have pointed out over the years, often centred around and oriented toward women. Even if this is true, so what? Others attribute the irrational hatred and fear of melodramas to the perceived hyper or over the top "nature" of melodramas? But are the narrative forms and acting styles of melodramas any more or any less over the top than the narratives and acting choices of American situational comedies?

These questions about melodrama came to mind this labour day weekend thanks to a discussion on melodrama I had with a colleague and thanks to the fact that this labour day weekend in the US PBS reran the popular melodrama Downton Abbey. Though I have seen each and every episode of Downton Abbey at least once I did, I have to admit, peak in on the Downton marathon several times this long weekend. Binge watching Downton Abbey made clear several things I already knew or suspected about the show. The cinematography, sets, and acting of Downton are superb. It is the writing of Julian Fellowes that is the achilles heel of the show. Downton Abbey is, in my opinion and generally speaking, a middling or mediocre show at best. Series 1, 2, and 3 of the show are the best. Series 4, 5, and 6 are the weakest and repeat some of the things during the first three years of the show suggesting that Fellowes had run out of ideas for the show. Rematching the series also foregrounded the silliness of some of the arcs of the show as written by Fellowes. There's the I can't marry William arc, the can Matthew or can't Matthew walk and have little kiddies arc, the Lord and the parlour maid Jane arc, the I'm Patrick arc, the trails and travails of the possibly murderous Bates's arc, the I'm a socialist no I'm a capitalist thanks to wonderful America where social mobility is possible Branson arc. And then there are all those deus ex machines that seem to be Fellowes too much stock in trades.

None of these failures and the others that populate the show are the products of melodrama. They are down to the middling writing of Julian Fellowes. The reason the show is as watchable as it is, is down not only to the quality of the cinematography and the quality of the sets, but also to the quality of the ensemble acting in the series. Lady Sybill's death scene is superb. Thomas's destruction of the World War I rations he has been conned to buy is superb. Maggie Smith is always superb. Without here Downton Abbey wouldn't be nearly as watchable. If not for the quality of the acting and how devoted one becomes to the characters the actors play, Downton Abbey might almost be unwatchable. All this is rather sad since Fellowes seems to have put so much of his ideological self in the show.

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