A Respectable Soap Opera

I searched and searched, and it seems no one here is watching Downton Abbey. I wanted to write a post to recommend it, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s truly the guiltiest of pleasures.

In Downton Abbey, the easiest way to tell if a woman is lovable is by checking first to see if she is extremely good-looking, as opposed to merely very pretty. “Very pretty” means she will be pitied openly until she finally learns that she will never be loved, nor not even particularly liked, at which point she becomes a cunning bitch and spoils the lives of those around her so you have a better reason to despise her. The truly excellent-looking are lovable even when they do pretty morally questionable things, like seducing foreign diplomats, fucking them to death, and then hiding their bodies. As for the men, the less handsome they are, the more we are intended to like them.

And there’s a lot of Maggie Smith mugging at everything, cross-class romance, and women despairing that they just want “something to do!” There are easy wartime tears and plenty of pained long-distance eye contact. Americans are clueless wannabes, the Irish are fiery and resentful, and Scots are stout and dependable. Every single time someone kisses or says something secret, it turns out they are interrupted by exactly the wrong person. The show’s body count is higher than on Misfits. At the end of the second season, even Lord Grantham has finally admitted that every member of the household is so embroiled in scandal now that there’s no sense in pretending they are a respectable family any longer.

And yet!

When I don’t actually stop to think about it at all, I really deeply love this show. While watching it, I say things like, “Oh, no! Stop!” and “Finally!” and I may have cried several times during this last episode.

I remember a friend once recommending Six Feet Under to me back when it was on (ten years ago?) by saying that it was a show about extremely uptight people who, in every episode, seem to wring themselves of every possible confession and confrontation without ever giving the sense that they’ve ceased to be tortured by uptightness and secrecy. I think Downton seems to be following the same path. Characters change so much more slowly than events and circumstances that the audience gets that uniquely soapoperish pleasure of dramatic irony.

When I first started watching soap operas, it was All My Children with a group of women at the office where I worked during a summer home from college. We’d sit down to watch and they’d mock me for believing that Leo could ever love Laura, whom he married on her deathbed just before her miraculous heart transplant. “He’s going to make a go of it!” I’d say. “Not with Greenlee still around, he won’t,” they’d say. And lo, they were correct. How did they know? It turns out a good soap opera rewards the careful viewer.

I suppose that’s what these new long-form dramas have to offer. People who wouldn’t be caught dead immersing themselves in One Life to Live or Guiding Light are getting a chance to predict what their favorite characters will do on Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Downton Abbey is basically the same formula, but I think I rather like it.

6 responses to “A Respectable Soap Opera”

  1. F. P. Smearcase says:

    (cannot read! too spoiler-averse! ((and have decided to watch this despite lack of any real interest because everybody’s talking about it)) )

  2. A White Bear says:

    Oh fine. All the spoiling is from a year and a half ago, so it’s hardly bleeding-edge stuff.

  3. F. P. Smearcase says:

    No, no, that wasn’t intended as a scolding for spoilers. I was just explaining my inability to comment substantially. I started to read it and thought “this is going to be about stuff that actually happens on the show, so I’m not gonna.”

  4. Dave says:

    I would submit that the All My Children-watching old-timers at your summer job could predict what would happen not because they were close watchers but because through their long years of watching soaps they had internalized soap opera logic. In soap operas, characters do things because the writers think that having those characters do those things will maximize audience enjoyment in a certain way. It is so much more exciting that Ben’s mother had an affair 23 years ago with Patrick, because that means that the 22-year-old Ben is really in love with HIS HALF-SISTER, Patrick’s daughter. There’s nothing else going on — it may or may not have a key character development for Ben’s mother to have an affair, and it probably has no greater thematicsignificance. It’s just exciting, titillating in a certain way.

    I haven’t seen Downton Abbey, but it sounds like it is pretty soapy. A lot of the other middlebrow serial dramas on TV are also soapy, in that their plots follow soap logic. But a lot of them have other things going on.

    The first seasons of the Sopranos did not follow soap logic. Characters had reasons for what they did that were inherent to their characters and served thematic narrative goals. The show was exciting because the characters were well drawn and thus did interesting things; we didn’t need any cheap soap tricks. Of course, it’s hard to maintain that kind of thing, and arguably the Sopranos got a bit soapy as it went on — although not entirely. I never saw the last season, so my evaluation is incomplete.

    Mad Men is infuriating because the things that happen don’t follow any discernable logic at all. The characters do things that are consistent with who they are, but they’re basically just robots bouncing around. Then something HAPPENS to them, but it’s not a soapy thing usually. It’s just Weiner deciding something needs to happen. I find the show extremely unsatisfying for this reason.

    Six Feet Under was kinda soapy but also had a lot of very real, character-based dilemmas. The characters didn’t change much, but I thought that was kinda the point being made by the show.

  5. LP says:

    Good soaps are a great pleasure to follow. RB and I have lately become obsessed with Friday Night Lights, which is as soapy as soapy gets, featuring impossibly good-looking high-schoolers; a coach and wife whose relationship always manages to seem at once complex, desirable, troubled and thrilling; almost-implausible plot twists; oddly comforting Texas accents; lots of barbecues; and one high-school football booster who, I swear to God, is the most perfect evocation of the Deeply Flawed and Exasperating yet Strangely Lovable archetype I’ve ever seen on television. Long live Buddy Garrity!

    Clear eyes, full hearts, etc. We actually say that in our house now.

    Haven’t watched Downton Abbey, but I believe we must. Too many people we like seem to love it.

  6. Buddy Garrity is indeed a bit of televisionic perfection.