What Downton Abbey And James Bond Have In Common, Besides, You Know, Britain

Very very low on the list of bizarre things that happened at the Golden Globes last night – or as I like to call them, the Drinky Oscars – watching Daniel Craig and Adele high-five (from now on I am going to imagine them doing this every time that Taylor Swift is sad), might be the one I’m fondest of. As soon as Tom from Parks and Rec starting making Downton Abbey pot jokes (“They call cookies biscuits!”), however, I started thinking about these two English imports, and their respective critical fortunes at the moment, and came to the conclusion that we colonials are treating them very differently from the riff-raff on American cable and Hollywood film in the multiplexes. It’s worth at least a rambling blog post to explore why.

One of my prouder moments in Academia was getting to write a paper on the Bond formula in which I got away with the following sentence: “[GoldenEye] is so conventional, in fact, that Sean Bean dies twice.” I mean, it’s all downhill from there, right?  James Bond, coming off his 50th anniversary, is both the shining model for all the franchises that have followed him and the obvious exception to the gravitational laws that govern the successes and failures of them. He has dibs on his own, proprietary superhero/spy mashed-up subgenre. Like the rollicking boys-club adventure films of Douglas Fairbanks in the 20s, there’s a very specific feel and very specific expectations for Bond that color where he goes and what he does and the kind of experience we can expect out of him. And then there’s Skyfall.

Acting sort of like mini-reboot after the slow-motion train wreck that was Quantum of Solace, Skyfall very much establishes players and sets the stage for the remaining two films of Craig’s tenure while also harkening back, largely through quick allusions and puns in the dialog, to the Bonds of yore. No other franchise except Doctor Who has this strong a communion with its previous iterations – think about all the various Batmans and how they exist in vacuums in relation to each other.  But it also expands on the increased physical vulnerability and intensified continuity that so distinguished Casino Royale by delving into a back-story that Bond has never had on film. Variation is the breath of life for any film franchise, and it only helps if it’s well-crafted, as Skyfall certainly is. The Shanghai fight? I just sat in my seat sputtering and gesticulating wildly at the dark. The colors! The colours!

In fact, all I really care about this awards season is being a cheerleader for Team Roger Deakins (I’m sorry, Seamus McGarvey, I love you too!). But Skyfall’s reception also seems grounded in appreciation of the growth of its own, special little universe, which once consisted only of spy hijinks and sexytimes, even more than the quality of the film itself – which lumbers a little from act to act and the ending of which is rather predictable, if not the gorgeousness of the moment. When we think about Bond films, we measure in meters, not in inches like we would with a non-Bond action-thriller. The terms are different. Because of all that history, it’s nigh impossible (and would in fact be a fool’s errand) to relate to the film only on its own terms. As Skyfall itself deals with what it means to be Bond, indeed all the Craig!Bond films have done this, that’s not a bad thing, either.

This brings me to Downton Abbey, the enduring fondness for which baffles me after the lumbering melodramatic lurches of season 2 and the near lifeless opening to season 3 – I have not seen the rest of the new series, which I am assured is much better, and season 1 is acutely nuanced in a way that only makes what comes after it hurt more. This is a series that also seems to work best within a specific and very historical context – the pilot opens, after all, with the sinking of the Titanic. Half the tension lurking underneath and fascination behind the very foreign world of the late British aristocracy of the Crawleys and their domestics is that, from our perspective, they are living in Atlantis. Part of its appeal is that it’s a visually gorgeous (even Bates’ prison has a minimalist beauty courtesy of the ‘Rembrandt’ lighting coming through what have to be very impractical open windows) phantascope. Part of the magic of Carson is in how his attitudes and acts animate static, dead (to American audiences) ideas. Watching the show is kind of like watching Muybridge’s horse in motion.

That’s not to diminish Downton when it’s on form. Most of the time it’s charming, and the interdependency between masters and servants in season one comes across in a way both worthy of serious consideration and yet spritely enough to be enjoyable. Maggie Smith’s fabulous one liners, deservedly, get the most notoriety of any aspect in the show, and the twists of Matthew and Mary’s tortured romance are, if not always well conceived, pretty well executed. Its production values are fabulous. Yet, it seems that often as not, the one thing television audiences hunger for, plausibility of character emotions, is increasingly absent. If the characters ring true, you’ll follow them through worlds without shrimp to the ends of a polar bear-riddled pocket reality and back again, but when Matthew’s whining feels as insubstantial as a shadow, the most smartly pressed dinner jacket will not save you.

Yet, what is James Bond but an emotionally inaccessible badass? The pleasure of watching Bond originating in the pleasure of watching a hyper-masculine hero conquer space (and sex) with the ease of someone moving through zero-G. As that franchise becomes more weighted, it seems like Downton is losing gravity. The viewer’s relationship to both, however, still seems to exist in realms apart, with their own rules of conduct. Perhaps that is part of the reason why we’re willing to forgive so much from Downton, and to rejoice so much at the advent of a Bond film that’s also actually a film.

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