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Author Topic: Downton Abbey
MattLeo
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My wife and I have been watching the British/American costume drama "Downton Abbey" on Netflix. It's about the inhabitants, both aristocrats and servants, of a great English country house in the years from 1912 until the late 20s.

At first we watched the show for the costume porn -- amazing and in some cases authentic vintage dresses that reportedly cost the production a fortune. I will confess that within the first five minutes of the first episode, a backlit shot of Michelle Dockery in a sheer negligee had me hooked. I wore out the remote's replay button on that scene. Yes, I am a pig.

But I soon got interested in the writing. I'm a character oriented writer myself, which is why I'm not much attracted to the short story. Anything under ten thousand words doesn't offer enough space for character arcs to suit me. But it turns out that a serial drama has so much space that you don't have character arcs so much as you have character arc macrame.

Serial drama is not a very good medium for plotting. It's not that you don't have room for enough plot, it's that you end up with so much plot going by so fast that it fades into a blur. It's all an elaborate game of bait-and-switch. Let's say you tune in for the next development in the star-crossed romance of Lady Mary and Matthew, the heir presumptive of Lord Grantham (Ms. Dockery does the finest gaze of agonized longing of any actress in Christendom, she's a standout in an ensemble stocked with world-class lip quiverers). Instead you get the blackmailing of Mr. Bates (his lordship's valet) by his estranged wife. She clearly hates him, but she won't give him a divorce, frustrating the romantic hopes of Anna, the head housemaid.

If you mainline the episodes one after another (as we did), pretty soon you see that all that plot is merely a necessary evil. It's all about bringing a character close to his goals then wrecking his chances. A theatrical release movie is maybe two hours long, and the writer has to fill five times that screentime with story every season. The game is to get the audience to identify with characters, even the unlikable ones. Perhaps especially the unlikable ones. And that's where writers can draw lessons from this show.

None of the characters is two dimensional -- except Matthew's fiancee Livinia, who is so saintly even Lady Mary has to admire her. The "unlikable" characters have motivations you can empathize with. Thomas, the evil Machiavellian footman, is ambitious, but his career is continually under the threat that his homosexuality will be revealed. Ironically, it's the virtuous characters that end up getting on your nerves. Mr. Bates habitual turning of the other cheek seems admirable at first, but soon starts to feel like deliberate victimhood. Matthew and his mother's middle class virtue soon looks an awful lot like pig-headed priggishness.

By contrast the characters' vices are easier to live with. Lady Mary is haughty to the point of wickedness, but she gets paid back in full for it. With so many melodramatic plot twists and turns, it's ultimately the characters who are most adaptable that you end up liking best. The dowager countess (played with inimitable verve by Dame Maggie Smith) is a snob and a scold, but she's also a sharp operator who doesn't waste time or tears over lost battles. One of the great pleasures of the series is watching the grand old lady slip a verbal knife between the ribs of some hated character.

Overall, this show is top-notch in its acting, costumes,and production values. As for its writing, I think the plotting is a bit melodramatic, but that may be the fault of the genre. It has made me wonder whether in this age of weblogs and flash fiction, whether there might not be a place for written serial drama.

[ November 28, 2012, 11:22 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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LDWriter2
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Hmm, just saw that they are starting a new season. Or will be soon.


Almost like to see a couple eps to see how they do it.

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Robert Nowall
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Well, I remember its prequel, "Upstairs, Downstairs," quite well, but haven't checked this revival / reworking out yet...perhaps long story arcs in TV shows are for the better, and soap operas in one form or another have always been popular...but these series also have a bad habit of raising questions without ever providing answers...
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
Well, I remember its prequel, "Upstairs, Downstairs," quite well, but haven't checked this revival / reworking out yet...perhaps long story arcs in TV shows are for the better, and soap operas in one form or another have always been popular...but these series also have a bad habit of raising questions without ever providing answers...

I agree totally. Serials are OK, but I prefer a story that takes characters through a journey with an identifiable endpoint. That's probably less realistic than the never-resolving drama of a soap-opera, but there's something more satisfying about a story that finishes.

I get the feeling that Downton Abbey is going the route of perpetual frustration, but I'll still watch it for the costumes. My wife's hobby is dressmaking -- particularly period dress like 19th C ball gowns.

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Robert Nowall
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I've spoken elsewhere about my ideas that books in particular should be complete-in-one-volume, that one shouldn't have to buy all of a series to figure out what's going on.

But I was thinking more of shows like "Lost," which I didn't watch, but which, I gather, built a big buildup that was impossible to live up to. Most of the old-prime-time soap opera shows (say, "Dallas" or "Dynasty," which I also didn't watch) didn't raise much, and (generally) answered their questions as time wore on.

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KellyTharp
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Downton Abbey I feel is so typical British, which has so many characters you have to put in a serial format.I get lost keeping track of them all. As for "Lost", Mr. R, I too found it hard to watch cut up with commercials, but really got into it via DVD. What I hated is that they plagerized the ending from Quantum Leap with Scott Bakula. After all the build up it was a real let down. Like Carl Sagen's "Contact". But there are series I love dearly, Dragon Riders of Pern, Xanth, just to name two. You can read those separately, but to really enjoy them you need to read the series. Just my two cents worth folks. (Admittedly prejudiced because I'm writing a sci fi series . . . my bad.)
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Robert Nowall
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One thing with the (book) series I used to read---emphasis on "used to" here---is that, as they went on and added more volumes, somewhere along the way, I dropped the ball. "Dragon Riders of Pern"---the late Anne McCaffrey's thing, not sure if it has a proper name---went on so long, and now looks like it'll go on well beyond the death of its creator.

(I honestly don't know if I'd want that in my work---I like to write everything self-contained and an endless series has little appeal to me. But it would provide for my heirs and issue...)

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Meredith
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I don't have a problem with extended series as long as there's some resolution along the way. Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider of Pern is a great example. Each book had its own story arc that fit within the development of that world. No problem.

Sometimes, with series like that, I just lose interest. (Raymond E. Feist's Midkemia series, for example.)

The ones I can't stand are the ones that go on . . . and on . . . and on and never resolve anything. (Robert Jordan, I'm looking at you.)

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KellyTharp
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Haven't read the "Wheel of Time" series, but have friends who are addicted. I'm hoping that my series characters will now have their own story arc and good clean endings. But, to start the series had to do it in two books. Now the adventures begin. But, do like to leave a little bit hanging for the next installment. Cliff hanger ending I only did in book one as the whole story was split to make two books. Book three will have a clean ending...I hope.
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MattLeo
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Well, my problem with book series is that I like to write stories where the outcome transforms the character. You can't keep repeating that in a series, because the appeal of the series is to go back and see a familiar and beloved character do his thing, over and over again. It doesn't work if he comes out of each story a different person.

That's why serials are so often about detectives and doctors -- those are people whose business is to stick their nose into other peoples' lives. A principal character may develop over time -- for example we learn that Sherlock Holmes has a brother -- but it's very slow and for the most part it doesn't matter which order you read the Holmes stories in.

One thing TV serials with a large ensemble cast do is to provide story arcs for secondary characters, sometimes moving them out of the show and replacing them. Think Star Trek TNG. But the central character (Picard) doesn't change very much -- glacially slow, if at all. And that's how it should be, fulfilling the viewers' expectations week after week yet having characters grow and change as a result of each episode. (Also, we can treat the story world as a character here which evolves, e.g. changes in the Federation relations with the Klingon Empire).

Downton Abbey has stunning production values, it's positively beautiful, but the writing verges on the melodramatic. That's because the people in the story have nothing to do but have ridiculously complex and frustrating lives.

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LDWriter2
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I haven't read the Wheel either but I've seen stuff from the series you can get.

I stopped reading Xanth a while back, not sure why, and now I want to try to see where I left off if I can figure that out. Yeah, the books are self contained but sometimes they have something that continues. Like someone's kids having an adventure.

The Pern books--seems like they are just called that--are--I don't know. I stopped reading I think just before The Dolphins book came out but I get attracted to it when I see a new book.

Shannra(?) is one series that I have problems with being so long. I starting reading a sub trilogy where the wizard is trapped by a futuristic computer. But I stopped reading the second one half way though and now I have no idea where the book is. But I want to write a book about my own flying ships...I love that part of that story. But the characters are rich and diverse. Brooks is good at that. Which is one reason I want to keep reading his books even though sometimes the story arc doesn't attract me so much.

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Robert Nowall
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Lost interest in "Shannara" (Terry Brooks) after the third book---not really 'cause it became an endless series, but that I prefered other fantasy series, and, ultimately, Tolkien.

Never read more than a couple of books of the Xanth thing---and didn't particularly like them. Didn't grab me...seemed far too "punny" for my tastes, like the writer wasn't taking them seriously. Perhaps odd, 'cause I've read a good chunk of Piers Anthony's other work. I remain very fond of his first "memoir" book, though the title escapes me. Also things like "The Barn," that really stretched the boundaries of SF (and good taste).

One difference between series books and, say, TV soap operas such as "Downton Abbey"---for the next part of a book, it might be a wait of months or years...but a TV series will deal you another episode in a week or two. Much easier to relate to when they come in quicker doses. (Multipart nonfiction biographies are the worse---I've waited years between segments, to the point of wondering if they'd ever come out.)

Which is why I've established a rule---I avoid series unless they're complete, that there won't be any more parts for whatever reason. (I've avoided George Railroad Martin's lengthy fantasy series for that reason, much as I admired his earlier SF.)

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