By Marlena De Lacroix a.k.a. Connie Passalacqua Hayman
Name me a daytime soap fan who doesn’t watch and probably love Downton Abbey. Even though a lot happened this busy soap week (Genie’s coming back, Prospect Park made a deal with the Writers Guild) what everyone’s talking about is the megahit Masterpiece Theater miniseries. Downton’s third season premiered last Sunday on PBS.
I love Downton Abbey now too, but I briefly gave it up in frustration during season two. The similarities between it and daytime soap opera became too much for moi. Hey, haven’t I seen these plots many times on daytime? When paralyzed war vet Matthew suddenly stood up in his wheel chair, I couldn’t stop thinking of paralyzed Josh doing the same thing on Guiding Light. A pair of lovers, Matthew and Lady Mary, overcome wrenching obstacles to finally get engaged and married! Haven’t we seen similar couples break up and make up like that a million times on soaps? Isn’t obstinate argumentative Mary just like obstinate argumentative Rachel Davis Corey on Another World? Doesn’t blond and beautiful Dan Stevens (who plays Matthew) look as surreally perfect as countless daytime soap leading men?
Plus, Downton Abbey rather blatantly begs comparison to my very favorite soapy British miniseries, the beloved Upstairs Downstairs, an earlier evolving drama of the parallel and often intersecting lives of the rich aristocrats upstairs and their servants downstairs. As smart and loaded with scandal, intrigue, history and romance as writer Julian Fellowes’ Downton is, the original Upstairs Downstairs (1971-75, created and mostly written by Alfred Shaughnessy) was a subtler and ultimately more touching portrait of the British class system at a crossroads.
And while we’re needling the estimable Mr. Fellowes for his rather obvious yet tastefully chosen source material … Do we see in the elegant and noble Lord Grantham the rich man Tevye always wanted to be in Fiddler on the Roof, yet still faced with losing control of the destinies of his three outspoken, oft rebellious daughters?And if the young women must come as a trio, how can we not recall their Russian contemporaries in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, angsting over the crumbling of their aristocratic world? (Okay, this one is a stretch. At least, as Mr. Fellowes writes it, we are spared some equivalent of the infernal yearning to go to Moscow.)
Well, you might say, so what? And you would be correct. For Downton Abbey is wonderful, intelligent fun, so splendidly produced and acted, and deserves every bit of its success.
And what pleases Marlena the most is that Downton Abbey succeeds for the very same reasons our best, cherished soap operas succeeded – and happily, in some recent cases, still succeed: the huge cast of characters we never stop caring about, living and loving in intertwined stories that take us out of our lives and into theirs. Because Marlena loves soaps so much she can’t get enough of them, I re-watched the rest of the second season. What irked me the first time through worked its magic on me the second time.
The swelling dramatic theme song, the costumes, the set design and scenery and the perfect looks of Dan Stevens beguiled me, and I came back to really liking the show. Why? The show is absolutely packed with so many characters and stories that move so fast in every episode that what you get in Downton is good, breathless, nonstop, almost concentrated soap opera. As cast newcomer Shirley MacLaine (Cora’s mother, Martha) observed in Parade Magazine just last week, “Fellowes is so successful because he’s invented a soap opera for the Internet Age.”
I agree. The speed in the storytelling is, as soap fans all know, au courant, the hallmark of another show we’re all raving about these days – General Hospital – which is packed with fascinating characters lately (especially the veterans), has multiple good plots going all at once, and most importantly has really speeded up the storytelling. The current GH storytelling methodology is coincidentally much the same as Downton’s.
Anyway, one of the reasons I love Downton is the characters, which is why most people love daytime soap opera. Wouldn’t you love to have sympathetic Carson as your butler? Lord Grantham has such marvelous English diction and such a superb physical carriage, Marlena’s developed a little crush on him, too. (I’m getting old.) Isn’t Lady Edith itching to get married? Her desperate tactics remind me a little bit of that of longtime single Marlena, before Moose came along.
And then there’s the falsely convicted murderer Mr. Bates and his wife, Anna, the lovely, wispy yet bulldog tenacious lady’s maid. Don’t you just adore the looks of true love they share every time she visits him in prison? Now that is the kind of chemistry and portrait of true love that daytime producers and writers would sell their souls for. Will Mr. Bates ever be set free?Hey, aren’t there two leading men in jail right now on soaps — Todd and Johnny sharing a cell on GH? Instead of love, all past lover and visitor Carly gives them is screeches and criticism.
I think I like Downton Abbey prison scenes a lot better. So what do you think, Thinking Fans? Do Downton Abbey and daytime soaps cross paths for you? Discuss.