This ten-part series, set in New York City in 1896, is a compelling adaptation of the book by Caleb Carr — an “alienist” was the word used then for a psychologist. The plot follows a grisly and brutal killer of young male prostitutes and the efforts of Laszlo Kreizler, the alienist, to find and stop him.
He’s aided by Sara Howard, (played by Dakota Fanning), and John Moore, a friend who’s a wealthy freelance illustrator for The New York Times and a pair of brothers, Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, NYPD detectives. They’re threatened and thwarted by a corrupt police captain and his shadowy boss, aided by a young Teddy Roosevelt — later to become President — then the commissioner of police.
The production values are fantastic — at $5 million per episode — with exquisite costumes and hair, and period-authentic transportation in gleaming black horse-drawn carriages through cobble-stoned streets and an early steam train.
Like so many other fantastic television and film productions, (Game of Thrones, Blade Runner 2049), it was made in Budapest.
It’s a grim story, for sure, but if you have any interest in or familiarity with New York City, it’s interesting to see re-created, long-gone landmarks like the Croton Reservoir and to re-live that period.
The characters all have complicated emotional lives, several of them estranged from their fathers. The character of Sara Howard is my favorite — a whisky-drinking, cigarette-smoking iconoclast who stays steadfast in the face of violence, gory murders and everyday sexism as she becomes the NYPD’s first female member.
I’m also obsessive about watching opening and closing credits, for television and for film.
The opening credits — and carefully chosen music — carefully set a tone for the show that follows. Anyone remember the joyful opening hat-toss of the late Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show?
And its girl-power theme song: “You’re going to make it after all.”
I’ve been watching three dark and powerful TV series this summer — Happy Valley, set in Yorkshire and Succession and Sharp Objects on HBO. In all three, the opening credits, for me, are part of the pleasure, physically and emotionally setting us up for what happens next.
I even got a story out of this obsession once, after watching the final credits for The Namesake, a lovely 2006 film about an East Indian family living in the U.S. The credits revealed that the movie had been shot on location in a town about 10 minutes’ drive from where I live, in a suburban area north of New York City.
I sold a story about the making of the film to The New York Times, and learned all sorts of movie-making arcana, like how difficult it was to find the right hanging dishrack for the kitchen and why so many films and TV shows are made in or close to New York City — thanks to union rules, (and the high cost of paying overtime), if it takes more than an hour to reach a shooting location, door to door (or close to it), it’s deemed too costly.
My father, now retired, is an award-winning documentary film-maker — here’s his Wikipedia entry — so watching movies and TV shows was a normal part of our lives.
I got another story idea when I noticed how many recent films had long lists of Hungarian (!?) names in the credits — and discovered that one of the newest and largest film studios is just outside of Budapest.
Variety, which covers the business side of Hollywood, wanted me to do some reporting when I was there in July 2017 but the pay was poor for way too much work, so I just had a good time with my friends instead. (If you’ve seen “BladeRunner 2049”, one pivotal scene is shot inside the city’s former stock exchange and many others were shot on their sound stage there, as was “The Martian.”)
I’m mad for movies, and usually see at least one or two every week, sometimes more — old ones, new ones, watching loved ones over and over. (Just re-watched “The Post” last weekend for the third or fourth time. And, every time I do, I pick up a few more details I missed before.)
I watched “It” on TV recently and was hooting with laughter within the first few frames at a quaint street scene set in a fictional American town — which was in fact Port Hope, Ontario, whose landscape I know very well since my father lived there for four years and we had visited often.
To those who’ve never worked in journalism, it’s easy to forget — or simply not know about — the many hidden talents that make radio, print, digital and television coverage possible.
They include coders, graphic designers, layout people, researchers, fact-checkers and copy editors.
While on-air anchors earn millions, and reporters and photographers, out in public are visible, without cameramen and women, young and hungry interns, production assistants and bookers, none of it is possible.
One of the things my husband, a career photographer and photo editor, and I enjoy is that journalism really is a team sport; without all those talents, it just doesn’t happen.
Here’s a fantastic story from The Walrus, arguably Canada’s quirkiest and most interesting national magazine (for whom I soon hope to be writing!), about the eight women who ran the switchboard of the Toronto Star. Their genius was essential in an era before Google and social media made our jobs — i.e. finding people fast — so much easier.
To the reporters at the Star, the switchboard seemed capable of working miracles. And its feats were all due to dedication of eight women. Most came to the job with a background working switchboards, but the ones who stuck around were those who had the grit to call up dozens of people in the hopes of finding a source and then were persuasive enough keep them on the line. They took the job seriously: lugging yellow pages back from vacations abroad, leaving their home-phone numbers with reporters in case they were needed in a pinch, and working with reporters to revive leads that seemed long dead.
One of those operators was Eva Cavan, the switchboard’s supervisor for over three decades, who once tracked down the Star’s Washington correspondent by calling up every shop along Pennsylvania Avenue until a pharmacist was able to ID the reporter. During her tenure, Cavan’s team found the prime suspect in the 1972 Olympics massacre, located Terry Fox in Newfoundland by calling up stations he was likely to stop at, and convinced a control tower to delay takeoff so that the Ontario health minister could disembark and take a call with the Star.
I remember with fondness the operators at the Globe and Gazette, one of whom handed me the piece of paper informing me my French mentor had died.
This past weekend was a painful and emotional reminder that colleagues can be much more than the next guy or gal in the cubicle.
We attended the funeral of a man we all thought would live to his 90s, for sure, but who was struck down at 70 quickly and brutally by a rare cancer.
Zvi Lowenthal worked for 44 years at The New York Times, but you never read his name.
My husband worked for seven years inches from Zvi, an avid tennis player who — with Jose, his fellow photo editor — assigned and chose every photo for The New York Times’ business section. They were, according to their co-workers, an old married couple, and it was a good match: Jose is calm, steady, ice in his veins when the shit hits the fan. Zvi was warm, kind, meticulous, the kind of guy who made sure that freelancers got paper copies of their images, a gesture very few editors would ever bother to make.
And, when Jose was a Times photographer, Zvi had also been his editor. While Jose enjoyed seeing his name in the paper with every photo he took — in newspaper parlance his “agate” — editors never do.
The team managed to keep pictures coming through the most terrifying economic crisis since the Depression. It’s not easy to illustrate corporate malfeasance!
Today, American journalists are derided by the President, of all people, as “fake” and “disgusting”, inciting violence against us at his rallies.
Our skills and dedication — visible or less so — remain essential to a functional democracy.
It follows the path of policeman Gereon Rath and a young would-be police inspector, Charlotte Ritter. They’re both compelling characters, both haunted — Rath with a morphine addiction thanks to shell-shock from fighting in WWI and Ritter, who shares a filthy, squalid apartment with her mother, grandmother, pregnant sister (and her infant), brother-in-law and younger sister. To make ends meet, she works as a prostitute in a high-end club.
Lest this all sound really depressing, it’s not!
Rath is on the hunt for those who are blackmailing a prominent politician and he’s come to big-city Berlin from more provincial Cologne. Ritter is funny, smart and ambitious, eager to become a policeman as well. Together they must negotiate a difficult city, and a time — the Weimar Republic — legendary for its chaos and confusion.
There’s also a cross-dressing blond Russian named Svetlana and a ladies’ maid named Greta and her Communist beau, Fritz…
The show’s production values are tremendous — it’s the most expensive German series ever made, at nearly $40 million — and it shows. With 70 percent of it filmed on location in Berlin, it’s also fun for those of us who’ve been there to spot familiar sights.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the show’s co-creator, Tom Tykwer, spoke about the era; “At the time people did not realize how absolutely unstable this new construction of society which the Weimar Republic represented was. It interested us because the fragility of democracy has been put to the test quite profoundly in recent years… By 1929, new opportunities were arising. Women had more possibilities to take part in society, especially in the labor market as Berlin became crowded with new thinking, new art, theater, music and journalistic writing.” Nonetheless, Tykwer insisted that he and his co-directors were determined not to idealize the Weimar Republic. “People tend to forget that it was also a very rough era in German history. There was a lot of poverty, and people who had survived the war were suffering from a great deal of trauma.”
I read a history of the Weimar Republic a few years ago, which I urge you to do — it really helps to better understand and appreciate what you’ll see on-screen, from old soldiers’ endless romanticizing of the heroes of the Great War — even 11 years later — to the period’s tremendous poverty and social unrest. (One of my favorite films, which I’ve seen many times, is Cabaret, also set in Berlin during that period but BB, with so many episodes, is able to dive deeper. Like Cabaret, it also revolves around a nightclub, Moka Efti, whose dance hall is cavernous and whose basement contains a whorehouse.)
BB is darker, more violent and much more complex than Cabaret — you need to pay close and careful attention to its many characters and plot-lines. But so well worth it!
From its opening sequence, kaleidoscopic and filled with solarized images, to the blaring mass of horns that ends it and starts the show, you know you’re in for suspense and surprise. If you’re a fan of louche 70s British rocker Bryan Ferry, he, of all people, added songs to the show, (including several Jazz Age versions of his own), and he even appears in one episode singing onstage.
Maybe you know little about the VietNam war — you were too young then, or it didn’t affect you or maybe you didn’t care to learn about it.
This week, a 10-part series on the war has been airing on PBS in the U.S.; you can buy DVDs of the series or download episodes of it on ITunes.
It is unforgettable, moving, appalling, the result of nearly 100 interviews.
Each episode is 90 minutes to two hours long, and features a mixture of interviews with veterans of the war, both South and North Vietnamese and American, including an American doctor who was a prisoner of war, an anti-war protestor, the sister of a soldier killed early on in the conflict, journalists and others.
It is searing, disturbing, deeply sad; I see friends’ reactions on Facebook, left sobbing.
It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to (better) understand a war that lasted just under 20 years, from 1955 to 1975.
Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from 966,000 to 3.8 million. Some 240,000–300,000 Cambodians, 20,000–62,000 Laotians, and 58,220 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, and a further 1,626 remain missing in action.[A 2]
As someone who was born and raised in Canada, I had little conscious awareness of the war, which ended in my final year of high school. We knew about it, certainly, as Canadian media is forever saturated by all news from the United States, our largest trading partner.
It was a time, as today now feels again, when the country was deeply divided, between those who thought the war still worth fighting — and those staging enormous protests nationwide.
It’s deeply depressing to hear — on audio of the time — the endless lies fed to Americans by their leaders year after year, their broken promises that produced more domestic rage and frustration and more and more dead bodies.
One surprising effect, which I and others felt personally, was draft-dodgers, some of whom were professors in our university, exotic Americans — some 30,000 Americans fled to Canada to escape the draft and (!) 30,000 Canadians apparently volunteered to serve in the war.
“What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?”
The interviews in the film are raw and intimate, shot in tight close-up, as men and women now in their 50s, 60s or beyond recall the most terrifying moments of their lives. There are color images of them, young and strong, wearing camo, a stark contrast to the silk bow-ties and elegant jackets they wear as they recall the war for us.
The noisy, shocking film footage of battles and bombings and napalm, of ambushes and gruesome injuries and rows of dead bodies — both American and Vietnamese — makes looking away both tempting and cowardly.
There is, in Episode Nine, an astounding speech by John Kerry — then returned from the Mekong Delta wearing fatigues (who would later become U.S. Secretary of State.) That same episode includes an interview with photographer Nick Ut, whose image of a young girl who had just been napalmed, Phan Thi Kim Phuc (now living near my hometown, Toronto), remains one of the war’s iconic photos.
One of those famous images shown in the film sits on our living room wall — a signed gift from the late photographer, Bernie Boston, on assignment for the Washington Star.
And we have a friend, a former colleague of my husband, a “boat person” who fled VietNam after the war as a little boy, and who now works as an art director at The New York Times. He once told us his story, and it was difficult to reconcile the highly successful man we know today with the terrified refugee he was then.
Read the link and you’ll see an echo with the millions of refugees today fleeing in overcrowded boats from Syria and Africa. Plus ça change…
My father, a film-maker, also worked on a television series about the war, The 10,000 Day War, — it was the first time I knew the name of General William Westmoreland, a key player whom he interviewed.
I Googled that film —– and found that the nearest copy of it to my home is (!) at West Point, the military academy just north of where I live on the Hudson River.
Do you know much about this war?
Do you know anyone who served in the U.S.military in Vietnam?
I’m not, per se, a huge fan of cop shows, (although I enjoyed, and miss, NYPD Blue.)
But three shows have really caught my attention: Wallander (the Swedish version), The Tunnel and Inspector Lewis.
There are two versions of Wallander, the Swedish one (with English subtitles), filmed in the small southern coastal town of Ystad, and the English one, with Kenneth Branagh. For a variety of reasons, I prefer the Swedish.
I love the craggy, grumpy Wallander (pronounced Vall – AN -der), played by Krister Henriksson, who always looks like he could use 10 more hours of sleep, some coffee and a shave. He supervises two young detectives, Pontus and Isabelle, and their relationships form an interesting backdrop to the storylines.
I love the moody gray, blue and black palette of each 90-minute episode, which feels — to a North American viewer accustomed to 30 or 60-minute shows punctured with ads — luxurious and immersive, like a movie.
I love seeing Sweden’s gorgeous landscapes and beaches, and I like the way they say “Tack!” like a gunshot (Thanks, or please) into their cellphones.
I sat riveted every Sunday evening to see The Tunnel, a BBC production that is — a first — bilingual, half in French, half in English. It’s also the first time that officials allowed anyone to film inside the undersea tunnel that runs between England and France.
I missed the first episode, but it begins with the discovery of a woman’s severed body, half on the English side of the tunnel and half on the French side.
“Ah, les rosbifs“, sigh the young French female detectives as the grizzled English cops arrive, as they now, resentfully, have to work together to solve a bi-national crime.
I saw no North American press coverage of this amazing show, and think Clemence Poesy is astounding as Elise Wasserman, the pale, taciturn blond who leads the French investigation. Her leonine face seemed to be make-up free, her hair always un-brushed, focused laser-narrow on her work.
Her British counterpart, Karl Roebuck, is a tough old thing who has multiple children with multiple women — and can’t keep his trousers zipped. He’s used to charming his way through most situations, a tactic Elise (even tougher) is utterly immune to.
The storyline is complex , with a surprise twist at the end.
It’s violent, of course, at times but emotionally compelling, and I found myself deeply involved with the two key characters. This 10-episode series also had a very distinctive aesthetic — pale, washed-out, everyone wearing blue, black, green or brown.
The scene switches constantly from England to France, from one culture and language and procedural style to another. (As someone who’s lived in both countries, and speaks French, I loved this element of it.)
Set in and around the gorgeous city of Oxford, and on the university campus, its three major characters are as likely to head to the pub for a pint as to gather at a murder scene.
I haven’t yet been to Oxford, (or Ystad), so I enjoy seeing the gorgeous scenery and the creamy stone buildings of the university. There are endless little digs at class difference and a wry perspective on the insularity of academic life.
Like Wallander, Morse plays a somewhat avuncular role with his younger sidekick, and it’s interesting to watch that relationship.
These shows allowed me to enjoy visiting Europe each week, without a long flight or jet lag.
Here’s a recent story about what it feels like to be a reporter, a rare glimpse into the feelings we’re never allowed to share publicly:
Over the coming hours and days, millions of people are going to watch millions of hours and read millions of words on the Umpqua Community College shooting. They will learn what it looked like, from witnesses who escaped with their lives; they will learn about the victims—their lives, their hobbies, their dreams—from their friends and families; they will learn about the killer’s (or killers’) backgrounds and motives. Many of the same people who will eagerly consume this heartbreaking and enlightening information are the ones now criticizing the reporters gathering it for them. Where the fuck does the public think this news comes from?
The public may say it doesn’t want the horrible details; ratings, circulation, and traffic say the public is lying. The public may claim it values accuracy over speed, and that it is monstrous to contact witnesses this soon after a tragedy; the broad and voracious consumption of breaking reports, and the tendency to spread them as far and wide as possible, argue otherwise. The public will definitely immediately turn on CNN when news is breaking, then mock CNN for having clueless reporters uselessly speculate because there’s nothing to report yet, then turn to another channel to see if they’ve got something to report.
No outlet could conceivably think of sitting out the race to report something like this.
I’m grateful I’m no longer a hard news reporter, let alone at a tabloid — my last staff job, and literally my last staff position in journalism — ended in 2006. I was a reporter at the New York Daily News, then the U.S.’s 6th-largest daily newspaper.
It felt like an out-take from some 1930s film: tough-talking dames, foul-mouthed editors in suspenders, eager young interns, aggressive photographers. There was a guy in a corner of the enormous open newsroom called Gypsy.
I had only worked for broadsheets — The Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette and, freelance, for The New York Times. Even at their most aggressive, we didn’t behave like tab reporters who would, and did, do anything to beat their competition and win the wood, the paper’s entire front page.
The news we all read, see and listen to doesn’t erupt spontaneously — it’s the result of decisions made by top editors, often middle-aged white men — about what they deem most important and interesting.
At the News, I was sent on a stake-out, in Manhattan’s summer heat and humidity, to stand outside a midtown hotel and await the arrival of two Quebecoise visitors, one of whom had been attacked and injured, not critically. I was sent because I speak French, not a common skill in that newsroom. My job was to — in News parlance — get the quote, some pithy summation of their fear and shock.
That no other reporter would have.
It was tiring, boring and bizarre to stand there for hours, to clog the sidewalk beside competing reporters from the Times, Post and others. With an intern, our photographer busy chatting to her pals, I tried to sneak into the hotel several times, eventually caught by an irate security guard.
I’ve never felt so stupid or ashamed of my role.
When there’s a shooting — which in the U.S. is sadly common — reporters descend on the scene, desperate to speak to anyone involved and to be aggressive about it.
Because if they’re not, and a competitor for eyeballs, clicks, pageviews and revenue beats them to a source, they’re in deep shit.
Hence the comparison made to vultures — journalists swooping in the second they see blood, death, destruction, tragedy, to dig through its entrails and feast.
Some reporters are fine with this behavior. I’m not.
Partly because there are complex issues that rarely get discussed outside of newsrooms or journalism conferences: what to cover, when to cover and when to stop, what to ask.
Because the assumption is: everything, as fast as possible.
One reason reporters can look like vultures is that those of us working differently, not on breaking news — writing longer features or profiles, covering business or sports or government — remain invisible to the public.
We spend our days ferreting out information we hope will be useful, not merely that hour’s latest tragedy, which can appear titillating or voyeuristic.
So, the public often think “the media” are only those they suddenly come into contact with when we’re at our most aggressive and, yes, our ugliest.
When I teach journalism, I also remind my students — especially women — that we’re paid to break social rules: to run across a room, to interrupt, to ask tough, probing questions, repeatedly when necessary, to challenge authority, whether political, religious or the wealthy.
At our best, to speak truth to power.
That, too, sometimes offends the more decorous or docile.
Reporters don’t contact victims and bystanders because they get off on it; they do it because they’re a small part of a long-established news ecosystem that begins and ends with an audience that understandably wants to know what the facts are, which is to say that it wants to hear what victims and bystanders saw.
I got out of tabloid reporting because I couldn’t take feeling awful anymore. One former co-worker said she got out of it the moment she realized she had been doing it long enough to stop feeling awful.
But…I draw a line that others are failing to do now.
I do not want sentimentality or hand-wringing.
I do not want to hear one more slick television reporter — NBC Nightly News, I’m looking at you — yammer on inanely about a community’s gathering together to “heal.”
I’m so done with cliches, false emotion and bullshit.
Here’s what I want from fellow journalists:
— Insight, analysis, hard data, fact patterns, trends.
I watched Seth MacFarlane as host — and yes, I had to Google him — and thought “Seriously?” I found him crude, sophomoric (freshmanic? even better) and deeply off-putting.
I am not, however, the demographic the Academy Awards producers so desperately crave, 18 to 49 year old men. By hiring MacFarlane, and larding the show with sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic “jokes”, they thought for sure they had a win.
And they did.
But for every teen boy yukking it up out there, a million others, men and women of all ages, were tweeting and Facebooking their shock and disgust throughout, and after, the show.
Seth MacFarlane was full of surprises when he hosted the Oscar awards show last night. This morning came another one: TV ratings for the 85th celebration of Hollywood’s love affair with the movies were up over last year in the key 18- to 49-year-old demographic.
Early tallies for the show say it earned a 12.1 rating for that group, up more than from 3% from last year’s final 11.7 figure, according to a report in Broadcasting & Cable, citing preliminary figures from Nielsen. Entertainment Weekly notes that total ratings for the Oscars also probably rose over last year’s show hosted by Billy Chrystal. Final ratings, which may be different, will be released by Nielsen later today.
If these ratings hold, it will be a pleasant surprise for ABC and its corporate parent Walt Disney (DIS +0.22%).Some had wondered whether MacFarlane, whose TV shows and movies appeal largely to men, would turn off the mostly female Oscar audience. His song-and-dance number celebrating actresses who have shown their breasts on the silver screen may have offended some, but it was tame stuff by MacFarlane’s standards.
Best known as the creator of “Family Guy,” MacFarlane got mixed reviews for his performance.
For Broadside, an unpaid gig, I want an engaged, civil conversation with smart, global, interesting people. I have them! Yay, you!
For my books, I want readers of all ages simply open to new ideas, especially those interested in a new spin on old narratives — whether gun use or low-wage labor. Fortunately, I’ve found them as well.
When I write on business for The New York Times, I want readers to enjoy, think, argue, share. My stories are consistently the third most read and emailed of the entire Sunday paper. So, I’m pleased that my fairly careful targeting of the audience I seek is indeed out there.
But the pursuit of the Big Bucks, in many fields, means lowering the bar — of taste, execution, style, content, tone or intelligence.
It’s not a trade-off I’m willing to make.
How about you?
Who is your audience?
How do you try to win and keep and grow them?
Does it involve making trade-offs between your personal ethics and principles — and making a decent living?
The TV listings in my local paper, The New York Times, have 106 channels, including nine premium cable.
In the past month, I’ve turned the television on maybe four or five times. I wish I could say I miss it terribly, but I don’t. My TV fast began in June when I house-sat in Vermont, with a screen that needed three remotes, none of which I understood. Instead, I went to a barbecue, a minor league baseball game and read.
You know, books.
It continued at my Dad’s house when I was house-sitting in late September. I’d light a fire — a luxury we don’t have at home — eat dinner on the coffee table and settle in with a huge stack of unread magazines. I didn’t miss TV at all.
I normally watch NBC Nightly News every evening at 6:30, fully aware that it’s a narrow, slick, over-produced reduction of what’s happening in the world. Foreign news is almost unheard of in the United States, except for wars affecting U.S. interests and huge natural disasters. If you want a clue that the world beyond the U.S. exists, you need to follow BBC and consume on-line media from other countries.
I often follow the news with Jeopardy, (a quiz show in the U.S., for which I qualified in 2006, but was never called to appear.) My granny used to watch it, so it’s something of a tradition. I also want to stay in trim as I plan to try out again on my next visit to L.A. The host is Alex Trebek, a fellow Canadian, who once hosted a Canadian quiz show for high school students called Reach For The Top. I was on our school’s team two years in a row and helped take us to the quarter finals.
I enjoy What Not To Wear (which helps you figure out how to dress better) and Project Runway. I avoid all talk shows and political coverage, as I get plenty of that from my print and on-line sources already. How many opinions do I want to hear every day?
The TV stays dark most of the time right now because I’m burned out on the hyper-stimulation, the silliness, the repetition and its incredible time-suck.
I do watch movies, often, and eagerly await the January start, here in the U.S., of the third season of Downton Abbey.
I recently discovered “Wallander”, the original series in Swedish, shot in a town of 18,000 in southern Sweden, and loved it. I was so struck, in one episode, by the dominance of a very specific color, a deep teal — in clothing, wall colors, the evening sky, upholstery. I love the differences in every detail: the cars, the light, the landscape, even the electrical outlets. (I think I need to do some overseas travel soon!)
I had seen the British version, starring Kenneth Branagh, but much prefer the Swedish one.
But here’s a sampling of shows on offer — and why I’m able to resist:
The American Bible Challenge
Shocking Hip Hop Moments
High School football
The Real Housewives of Miami
I’m reading a lot more books. Talking to my husband and friends. Calmer and less distracted.
One friend, whose boys are two and six, limits their entire weekly screen time — including anything with a screen — to one hour every Friday night. Imagine.
Inspired by her discipline, I’m also trying to severely reduce the time I spend staring into any screen, whether phone, Ipad, computer or TV.
In the past few weeks, I’ve re-discovered a lost pleasure, that of diving into a book and disappearing in it for uninterrupted hours. I read, and loved two novels, “The Expats”, by Chris Pavone and Richard Ford’s newest, “Canada.”
The big deal here in the U.S. these days is a series being shown on PBS called Downton Abbey, filmed at a breathtaking enormous and beautiful country house, and centred on an aristocratic British family at the start of World War I.
It’s also created some controversy, as the larger cultural dialogue here is also increasingly focused on the 99% versus the 1%, i.e. the wealthy versus…the rest of us.
Why are we all eagerly watching a show about lazy rich people?
I admit to really enjoying DA, and look forward to it every week. Some fellow New Yorkers are even having British-themed parties and dinners to celebrate watching the show together, from Pimms cups to Eton mess.
Here are the reasons I like it, and think millions of others do as well:
Who doesn’t crave a life of leisure? Seriously. As Americans slog through their third recession in 20 years, millions out of work and losing their homes and trying to get a new job, never having to work ever again at all looks mighty alluring. We can easily resent today’s plutocrats, but watching long-dead British aristos lounge about? Not so much.
The production values! Anyone who loves beautiful design and vintage objects is loving the elaborate costumes and set design.
We can still identify with and cheer for the women’s wish for a less-constricted life. It’s an interesting plot line to watch all the women, servants and their employers, struggle to re-define themselves as workers, voters, something more than decorative or drudges.
Meals, eaten together. I don’t need footmen or candleabra, but I do love eating my meals seated at a proper dining table with linen napkins and china. In an era when so many families eat microwaved junk, fast food or rarely eat a meal at the same table together, the banter and baiting that happens at the Abbey dinner table is central to the story.
The Granthams have character flaws. Republican candidate Mitt Romney — worth an estimated quarter of a billion dollars, paying only 15 percent tax on his income and refusing to reveal his income tax returns — leaves many voters are deeply uneasy with his hail-fellow facade and his photogenic posse of handsome sons and blond daughters-in-law. We know there’s dirt in there somewhere; on Downton Abbey, those beautifully dressed and bejeweled sisters hiss and scratch at one another like…some sisters really do.
There’s never a mention of religion. Thank God! It’s interesting that none of the Grantham family, nor their servants, ever attend church or show anything resembling a spiritual life, ensuring no viewer can tune out for them professing the wrong faith. Whatever else the Granthams do, they’re not spouting pious platitudes, (like those Republican millionaire candidates), about how much they love God.
They talk to — and listen to — their servants on a personal level. Completely unrealistic, but makes for a set of relationships that go beyond silent, servile hair-brushing and silver-polishing.
They gainfully employ, house and feed a dozen adults. I’m in no way romanticizing the servants’ life below stairs! But when the valet Bates offers to leave — and is offered two months’ wages — we gape in envy. Virtually no American worker can rely on even a day’s severance pay, even after decades of loyalty to their employer. Given the growing and persistent income inequality now dividing American society, a family actually employing, feeding and housing workers seems a welcome anomaly. (They exist here. We just don’t hear much about them.)
So that’s how the 1% really think. In an era when we’re obsessed with the wealthy — and our irrelevance to them politically and economically –a television show offering a peek behind the velvet curtain allows us to eavesdrop on their private lives and pillow talk.
We already feel like servants. Many of the Republicans now running for President in the U.S. are so wealthy it’s absurd; Mitt Romney has spent $35 million of his own money so far. Many of us feel as distant, and irrelevant, to these men — who want to represent us politically — as DA’s servants do to their employers. Yet the servants at Downton share physical space with their employers, while today’s wealthy usually live very far away from the many minions tending to their needs. $35 million of disposable income? The toffs of DA look like pikers in comparison.
Here’s a published dust-up over the show — their knickers in a serious twist, as the Brits might say — between historian Simon Schama and creator Julian Fellowes.