Parade’s End (2012. Teleplay by Tom Stoppard, based on four novels by Ford Madox Ford. 300 minutes.)
No, it’s not Downton Abbey. So? So here we are in the 1910s in England, with a wealthy family living in a large house, one member of the house goes off to World War I, and social changes take place. Parade’s End ran in England in 2012, but it had the misfortune to run here on HBO (at this stage, I don’t have to make any more snarky comments about HBO, do I?) a mere two weeks after Downton Abbey finished its third season. So viewers who caught both found it almost impossible not to think about Downton Abbey while watching Parade’s End. What was striking to me was how different the two shows were.
Fellowes’s world is very large and contains multitudes. He has a big cast and runs storylines for most of them. In season three, he even had time for a cute little flirtation for Mrs. Pattmore, the cook. Stoppard’s (and Ford’s, I assume) is smaller. He’s focused on the married relationship of Christopher Tietjens, a rather reserved, not to say uptight, member of the British upper class, and his wife Sylvia, who spends most of the show pissed at Christopher for not being more emotional. They seem to be one of those couples that got married expecting the other person to fulfill something missing in themselves. I have known couples like that, as you may have, and it seldom works out. Unlike Matthew and Lady Mary or Bates and Anna, this isn’t a happy marriage. It gets off to an awkward start when Christopher marries a pregnant Sylvia, even though it isn’t clear to them whether the child she’s carrying is his or one of her lovers. But Christopher is a man who believes in honor, duty, and responsibility. One thing I love about the writing of this show is that it’s so subtle you have to be on your toes to pick up important details. No blood test is ever done on the son, Michael, but in the last of five hours, Sylvia says casually to her lover (not the other possible father) that Michael, now five, has all the Tietjens’ characteristics.
Early on, after the marriage has begun to go sour, Christopher meets Valentine, a suffragette much younger than he is. They almost kiss after a romantic carriage ride in the fog, but Christopher is determined not to involve her in anything that might be considered immoral. So we have the kind of British restraint we saw in Brief Encounter (1945) and the early days of the Matthew and Lady Mary relationship.
Even more than in Downtown Abbey we are in a hermetically sealed culture, in which gossip is relentless. At one point, Christopher’s father asks Christopher’s older brother Mark to find out the gossip about Christopher. He does, and all of it is bad and most of it untrue, including the assumption that not only have Christopher and Valentine done the nasty, but she’s had his bastard child. The father, without even asking Christopher if any of it is true, crawls into a bush on Groby, the family estate, and shoots himself with a hunting rifle. Down the road at Downton, somebody would have checked this out.
Christopher leaves his government job and joins the army. As the war starts, Stoppard is great at giving us little details about the stupidity of the skirmish, not just the usual blood in the trenches that Downton Abbey focused on. We have a brief storyline about Christopher trying to protect the horses in the cavalry, which is all a bit War Horse-y, and his commanding officer, General Campion, has a nice scene in which he complains about the ordering by the War Office of Christopher and his other soldiers to different billets. Typical of Stoppard, we don’t learn until the last hour that General Campion is Christopher’s godfather. Stoppard also intercuts between the war and upper classes indulging in their excesses back home, without anyone making a speech about it.
The heart of the show is the relationship between Christopher and Sylvia. In Downton Abbey, we pretty much know how we feel about the characters, which is part of what makes it so accessible to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Here your attitude about Christopher and Sylvia may change from scene to scene. Christopher is a prig, but he also has a firm belief in classical values. The General says at one point that he may be the last man in the world with such a belief. Sylvia is a flirt, but after she’s run away with a man once, she comes back to Christopher and vows not to have sex with anyone else, which she manages for five years. And then falls off the wagon. After that one, the last we see of her is asking General Campion if he will marry her if she gets a divorce from Christopher, which she has up until then refused to do. You have to be charmed by her gall. The General is gobsmacked and we never hear his answer. Benedict Cumberbatch, the current thinking woman’s sex god, nails all of Christopher’s nuances, and Rebecca Hall, whom we’ve watched turning into a great film actress, is his match as the flighty, irritating, but compelling Sylvia. Stoppard loved that aspect of the books. In an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Stoppard said, “But what was great was, it never really gave you a comfortable poise about what to think about the main characters.” Those two parts are much richer and deeper than any of the characters in Downton Abbey, which isn’t surprising since the focus is primarily on them.
The film is complete in itself, so Stoppard doesn’t have to worry about actors leaving next year.
Smash (2013. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)
Bring back Theresa Rebeck! As I mentioned in my comments on the first half season of this show in US #92, Theresa Rebeck, Smash’s creator, was dismissed at the end of the season. Given all the problems with the show, I wasn’t surprised. Smash has started up again without Rebeck, and it’s worse. The first season of the show was about the attempt to create a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe. The details were messy and not entirely convincing, but the show within a show at least provided a focus. The new season has split the focus several ways. The work on Bombshell continued, but the production was taken over by Eileen’s ex-husband Jerry. That only lasted a couple of episodes before Eileen figured out how to get it back. Meanwhile, Karen, the actress finally picked to star as Marilyn, began hanging out with Jimmy and Kyle. Jimmy is yet another asshole, this time a young song composer whom Karen thinks has talent. He may, although the songs of his we hear don’t sound all that impressive, and he has an ego the size of Texas. You can get away with that if you are already a big name, but most people won’t help you make it if you’re like that as an unknown. Derek, Bombshell’s asshole director, went off to stage a concert, apparently in a day and a half, for Veronica Moore, a Broadway diva who wants to change her image. That plotline also lasted only a couple of episodes. Then Derek agreed to direct a workshop of Jimmy and Kyle’s show, Hit List, but to nobody’s surprise, he and Jimmy butted heads. Ivy was in a musical version of Liaisons Dangereuses, but that closed after a few episodes, ending that plotline, so she replaced Karen as Marilyn.
So what is this show now about? I have no idea. Neither apparently does the audience, since this season opened very badly in the ratings, which have gotten worse. NBC may drop it sooner rather than later, although they’ve invested so much in the show that they may just let the episodes that have been filmed run out the clock. As in the first season, there are some bright spots. The performers are interesting; I particularly love Christian Borle as Tom, the composer. He seems like the one genuinely nice person among the characters. Sam, Tom’s sometime boyfriend last season and a real sweetie, was out on the road with a show, but he’s finally returned. I think Tom deserves to get laid on a regular basis after dealing with so many assholes (though he may have had an active sex life while Sam was away, we were never privy to it). (And speaking of assholes, I haven’t even mentioned Peter, the dramaturge they have brought in to work on the show). In “The Bells and Whistles,” written by Noelle Valdivia, Sam’s arrival led to a scene that shows what Smash should be. Tom and Julia dig a song out of their trunk at a cast party and Sam knocks everybody out singing it. The scene is the dream we all have of show business. Everybody agrees Tom and Julia should put it in Bombshell. Sam quits his job in the road show. But then, in keeping with the back-and-forth writing of the season, Tom and Julia agree the song won’t fit in Bombshell and Sam is out of two jobs. Maybe Tom isn’t going to get laid on a regular basis.
I suppose Smash may get around to being really sharp, but my hopes are diminishing fast. It’s a race now to see whether I stop watching before NBC cancels it.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.