Monday, February 23, 2015

My Soap Operas

I didn't watch the Academy Awards show last night. Given the choice, there was no chance I would choose to skip Downton Abbey (the penultimate episode of the season) or even Grantchester's season finale for the Oscars, which I generally think of as a tedious show at best. In another year I might have been tempted, after Grantchester,  to switch the channel to see the last half-hour or so of the Oscars. Instead, I just went to bed, never knowing which nominee got Best Picture. That was probably just as well, since Birdman was not one of the nominated films that I had seen, and so it is impossible for me to have any valid opinion about its having won. Of the nominated films that I did see, I would have been happy to see American Sniper, Boyhood, or The Imitation Game win the honor, although not The Grand Budapest Hotel. On the other hand, I was happy to hear that Ida, the one foreign language film nominated that I had seen, won in its category.

That said, that's probably enough attention to the Oscars! I certainly didn't feel I had missed anything when I woke up and I still don't, having since read David Edelstein's review of the show, "This Was the Best Oscars Show in years (But it Was Still Terrible)."

So, while Hollywood was indulgently celebrating itself, I was contentedly immersing myself in the family dramas surrounding Lady Rose McClare's interfaith wedding in 1924 London, Lord Grantham's improving attention to his family now that his dog is dead, Lady Mary and Lady Edith realizing how much emptier life at Downton will be for them without their brother-in-law Tom, and of course the unspeakable tragedy of Anna's arrest (a continuation of the cosmic injustice the screenwriters seem determined to keep visiting upon her and her husband). The final scene, the dedication of the War Memorial was a true tearjerker, as well as a good dose of reality - the reality of the appalling loss a whole society and all classes were still reeling from as a result of the pointless war that had undercut modernity's fantasy of perpetual progress. But the effect of the scene for me was diminished somewhat by the oddity of it coming right after Anna's arrest and the lack of any apparent efforts being made to aid Anna.  (I can understand wanting the show to end with that scene, which would have made sense without Anna's arrest, but Anna's arrest deserved to be seen as a much more destabilizing event.) 

Undoubtedly, Downtown is intended to be a parable about the overall liberating benefits of postwar change, as old standards and old rules seem to disappear each hour. Undoubtedly, all correct-thinking viewers are supposed to applaud the greater choices available to all the characters of all classes. But one cannot escape seeing in the collapsing aristocratic culture another parable about the loss of a meaningful narrative about what life, family, and society are supposed to be about - a narrative once meaningful and controlling enough to have enabled successful social institutions to flourish, but no longer.

As for Grantchester, I have never read the books but the TV version hooked me in the very first episode. Perhaps that is because the central figure is a Vicar (although obviously far better looking than most clergy can ever imagine themselves to be). Like Downton AbbeyGrantchester, also takes us back to a post-war world - this time, the post-war world of Britain in the early 50s. For all his amazing good looks, Sidney Chambers, the Vicar of a C of E parish in the village of Grantchester, a suburb of Cambridge, is tormented by his wartime service experience. (We finally find out the full measure of why in the final episode.). His crime-solving is therapeutic as well as providing him with his closest real friendship - with a notably less devout detective. But his life and relationships (especially with women) seem hopelessly burdened - making possible endless plot developments!

The other cleric in the series, Sidney's curate Leonard arrived in episode 2 with seemingly little to recommend him. He appeared at first to be set up as the less attractive, less talented, less personable - and hence less "pastoral" - foil for Sidney's star power. But from a figure of fun and mockery, Leonard has quickly grown into not just a good priest but a good friend and support for Sidney. May we expect more from him in the next season!

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