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Understanding Screenwriting #92: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #92: <em>Downton Abbey</em>, <em>Smash</em>, <em>Luck</em>, & More

Coming Up In This Column: Downton Abbey, Smash, Luck, CSI, Some Short Takes on Late Winter-Early Spring 2010 Television, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein pointed out that Preston Struges as a writer “organizes chaos,” but isn’t that what all screenwriters do? Unless you have seen writers’ treatments and first draft screenplays, you have no idea how chaotic a lot of movies that seem so perfect started out. With Sturges of course, he is writing about chaos as well. I agree with David that Wiseman’s Model (1980) is a much better film than Crazy Horse. Model brilliantly raises the question of why we should think of the models as “models” for us to follow. And it suggests that—gasp—the media are not nearly as influential as they think they are.

Both David and Victor Schwartzman take up the issue of race in regard to Red Tails. I certainly agree with David that Intruder in the Dust (1949) is one of the great American films on the subject. I was not quite as taken with Shadows (1960), and I am assuming David is at least partially joking about Mandingo (1975), but it does show you how race can drive everybody crazy, including Hollywood filmmakers. I happen to have a fondness for Pinky (1949). Yes, yes, I know that Pinky, the light-skinned Negro girl, is played by a white girl, but look at the scene in the store where the attitude of the shopkeeper changes as soon as he is told she is black. That’s one of the best examples I know on film of showing everyday racism.

Victor raises the issue of the portrayal of black characters in older films. Yes, there is a lot of cringe-worthy stuff in those films. I remember when I was in the Navy in the early ’60s. One of my fellow officers and my best friend in the Navy was one of the few black officers at the time. I remember we would get old ’40s movies to show on board ship, and the wardroom would all be embarrassed when we would see some of the stuff with Willie Best and others in Vance’s presence. Time makes you rethink things.

Downton Abbey (2012. Written by Julian Fellowes. Season 2, 7 episodes, approximately 540 minutes.)

Ahh, it came back and nearly all was right with the world: You may remember that when the first season of Downton Abbey came along, I got so hooked into it so quickly I wasn’t able to take the usual kinds of notes I do when I am watching something on television. See US#70 for details. Well, this time I took a lot of notes. Don’t worry, I am not going to give you a complete summary of this season, tempting though it might be. What I am going to do, just because I like to be perverse from time to time, is start with the last twenty minutes or so of the 7th and last episode. What happened was that my wife and I were away in Palm Springs the night it was on. Since I had no idea if the hotel we stayed at got the new PBS station in Southern California, I set up my DVR to record it. As it turns out, the hotel did get the station and we did watch it there. But I was a little sloppy on taking notes, and when we got back to Los Angeles, I wanted to look at the last twenty minutes to make sure I had got stuff right. What struck me in looking at those twenty minutes for a second time is how well Fellowes does everything in this series.

Lady Mary has been engaged to the press lord Sir Richard. He has threatened to print all the lurid details of the death of the Turkish diplomat from season one if she tries to break the engagement. But she has finally told Matthew about the death of the Turkish diplomat in her bed, and being slightly more modern than most characters on the series, he accepts it. That’s a pleasant surprise for Mary. So she tells Sir Richard that she is breaking their engagement. He is not happy about it, since he has spent a lot of time and money on her, buying a stately home near Downton Abbey and everything. Well, you can see why he is pissed. And this is part of what makes Fellowes’s writing so good. Sir Richard may be a skunk (think Rupert, or better, James Murdoch), but he is not without his feelings. She sort of really loves Mary, well, in addition to wanting to own her. And he is perfectly willing to take her on even though he knows (he’s not stupid) that she loves Matt. So, yeah, he’s pissed. And Matt makes it worse by walking into the room. And Sir Richard tells him that Lavinia knew Matt was not in love with her. OK, back up a minute. Lavinia was the woman Matt was engaged to when it did not work out with Mary in season one. She was a sweet young thing, but in over her head with these people. You just knew when the logline for Episode 6 said that “Spanish flu infects Cora [the lady of the house], Lavinia, and Mr. Carson [the head butler]” that Lavinia was not long for this world. When she was in a fevered state, she saw Mary and Matt dancing in the hallway and kissing, so it is likely she told Sir Richard (or is he just being a shit and guessing?). Lavinia was then able to die a wonderfully tragic death. Again, Fellowes giving as much detail to a relatively minor character as to the major ones.

So Matt and Sir Richard get into a fight. How plebian! And Robert, the Earl of Grantham and head of the house, orders Sir Richard to leave. Yes, Robert finally knows about the Turkish diplomat (it is way into this second season that he learns) and will take his chances with whatever gets printed. Sir Richard tries to be as polite as possible, the kind of turns of character that Fellowes is great at, and says to the Dowager, “I doubt we shall see each other again.” Class. And you will remember that the Dowager is Dame Maggie Smith. So what line does Fellowes give her? “Do you promise?” Like every other line Fellowes has given her, it is a perfect Dame Maggie line. But in Season 2 he has deepened the Dowager. She is no longer just a silly old lady, but one who sees better than some of the younger people the changes that are coming. Since she has been through a lot of changes in her life, she is better prepared to roll with the punches. So Fellowes is developing her rather than just falling easily into a bunch of great Dame Maggie lines.

Bates, Robert’s valet, has been accused of the murder of Mrs. Bates. There has been a trial and there is enough circumstantial evidence to convict him. And he is sentenced to death. Since testimony from Robert and others in the household have helped build the circumstantial case against him, Robert is determined at least at first to get his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. While he is working on that, Anna, Bates’s true love, is telling Mary that if Mary has to go to live with her maternal grandmother in the United States until the scandals blow over Anna will go along with her if she likes. Bates and Anna now have a nice scene in which he tells her that she has to live her own life, make new friends. Fellowes tends to make the lower classes just as dignified and noble as the upper crust. But Bates’s sentence is commuted, so does Anna stay at Downton Abbey as Robert tries to get him completely exonerated?

When have you ever seen a Servants’ Ball? It is a ball put on by the servants in which the upstairs folks dance with the downstairs folks. And Anna, now encouraged by Bates, notices that the maid to Lady Rosamund, the Dowager’s daughter, is sneaking upstairs with Lord Hepworth, who is trying to marry Rosamund. (There was a great, earlier scene where the Dowager, who had a fling many years ago with Hepworth’s father, nails his ambitions to the floor. See what I mean about Fellowes deepening her? Anna, the loyal maid, tells (off-screen) Mary, and Anna takes Mary and Rosamund to the room, opens the door, and lets Rosamund see what’s up. Now Anna tells the family she will be staying on. That’s an interesting touch on Fellowes’s part: showing us her decision after the Rosamund scene. It makes clear she understands where her loyalties lie. Especially if Robert can get Bates’s sentence dismissed.

The Bates-Anna love story is only one of two great love stories that Fellowes have given us. The second one is between Mary and Matt. They were obviously attracted to each other in season one, but it was a thorny attraction at best. For most of Season 2 they have been engaged to Lavinia and Sir Richard. Which means we have a lot of scenes (too many for a lot of viewers) of them almost connecting but not quite. Even I, who love Downton Abbey, wanted to slap these two idiots upside the head on more than one occasion. One of those is one of Fellowes’s best moments. In Episode 3 Matt and William, the downstairs guy, have gone off to World War I and have been reported missing. Downton Abbey has been turned into a convalescent center for recuperating soldiers. The family is dealing with this in a variety of ways. One afternoon Mary is singing “If You Were the Only Girl” to the recovering soldiers, accompanied on the piano by her sister Edith. The song is sentimental, especially to soldiers who may or may not go back to find their women waiting for them. The soldiers join in singing. This is an example of Fellowes’s ability to write multiple character scenes. We see the reactions of Mary, Edith, and the soldiers.

And then Matt and William walk in the door. That’s the most heartstopping moment I’ve seen since Hugh Grant’s Edward Ferrars says to Emma Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood in the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility, “My heart is and always will be yours.” At which point in Sense they get married and live happily ever after. But you notice this is Episode 3 of 7 episodes of Downton Abbey, so Matt and Mary stare longingly at each other rather than running off to one of the many rooms in Downton Abbey and doing the nasty.

So finally, at the end of Episode 7 Matt and Mary are outside the house, and it is naturally, snowing. Lavinia’s dead, Sir Richard is gone, the war is over, Matt can walk again and presumably do other useful things with the lower half of his body. So he proposes, and Mary, being the finicky person she is, insists that he kneel down and do it properly. Which he does. So they are finally, FINALLY, engaged.

But they are not married yet. Will they manage to screw up that? And what happens when Sir Richard prints all the lurid details? Will Mary have to go to visit her grandmother in America? Well, we already know that Shirley MacLaine has signed on to play that grandmother in Season 3, so we will see her either in America, or even more deliciously, trading zingers with Dame Maggie at Downton Abbey. And can Robert get Bates out of the hoosegow so he and Anna can have the happy life they deserve? You’ll notice that Fellowes has made the complications in the two love stories very different. For Matt and Mary the problems are internal; for Bates and Anna they are external.

A couple of other comments on Fellowes. He is a whiz at figuring out what to leave off-camera. A lot of scenes where people explain what’s happened to other people who do not need to see, since we know what they are talking about. Cora explaining to Robert about the Turkish diplomat, or Mary telling Matt about the same subject. Fellowes understands when to come into the latter half of the scene so we can tell from the characters’ reactions and comments what has been said.

Another thing: Fellowes, a Brit, has an American sense of pacing, which was one of the reasons I had trouble doing notes on season one. In the early ’50s, American television writer Sy Salkowitz went over to England to work on The Errol Flynn Show, an anthology series. He discovered the English writers wrote slower-paced scenes, so he condensed scenes, and added two or three scenes in each episode, which made the episodes at least seem to move quicker. Downton Abbey goes at a very American pace.


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