Life in the Box: Artful Abbey
I love Downton Abbey. Have you seen it? I guess it’s hard to miss it, since it’s been shown around the world, and in America it has won dozens of Emmys, plus Golden Globes and other awards, and is the best thing that’s happened to PBS pocket-books since the Red Green Show.
I’ve been digging around the web for “Downton Dirt,” and lo, in Atlantic Magazine, I found a critic who says Downton is a melodrama —and therefore it’s not art. Hmm. So that led me to spade around for melodrama’s roots, and I pulled up some definitions of melodrama that led me to believe that it’s an approach to acting that’s overdone. Originally defined as spoken word with music embellishment, the word “melodrama” is now a pejorative, although it wasn’t originally meant as a put-down.
If you’ve read my previous columns, you’ll know I define what’s good or bad by looking more at what’s accomplished by the show, than by genre or high gloss. So this question of art, for me, isn’t the key, but I find it curious that something as beautifully done as Downton can be called into question for its artistry.
By all known production standards, Downton is polished beyond shiny. The acting is great, winning two consecutive Screen Actors’ Guild Ensemble Awards. The sets, lighting, costuming, hair and makeup—are all tops. So what if the story-line is a bit modern, clips along at a good pace, and in most situations, the thorny problems get solved positively?
If melodramatic elements make a television program not be “art,” then I can’t think of any television that is art. Truly, none.
I once interviewed two art enthusiasts in Dubuque. They called themselves “Art Pushers” because they did everything in their power to create art showings. They filled their home with art, rented the condo next door as an art gallery, had art events with high school string quartets playing in the basement, served tea and coffee, and practically stood on their heads for art.
The funny thing about them, to me, was that they really had no boundaries around their definitions of what was good art and what was bad. They told me that any art was good art, because it makes people think. Art makes people talk with each other. Talking with each other creates community. It can open minds or close minds, but at least it opens discussion. That was their passion—to get people talking with each other.
So, where does that leave Downton Abbey? Art? In my mind, there’s no question. Its crafting is superb, it whispers world history while spinning tales around colorful characters, and it’s addictive, to boot. To the Art Pushers of Dubuque, absolutely it is art because it has created conversations and a world of community.
I think the Atlantic critic has it wrong. He defines one television series as art mainly because over the course of the story, the characters were changed. I see it the other way. It’s art if the viewers are changed. And Downton has sparked the imaginations of millions of people around the world.
Nancy Heather Brown is an Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for more than four decades. Today, she uses gems from this treasure trove of life stories to add sparkle to her reflections on the creative process both inside and outside the box.