The Allure of the Tales of the Working Poor: 'Downton Abbey: Seasons One & Two'

No wonder the recession made popular a show about life in a mansion. The series allows audiences to fantasize about near-miraculous displays of wealth alongside the dreary life of those who sleep in tiny, dreary bedrooms in the massive place that is Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey Seasons 1 & 2 Limited Edition Set - Original UK Version Set [Blu-ray]

Cast: Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern
Network: PBS
Release date: 2012-10-02

Downton Abbey: Seasons One & Two is all about today, despite its depiction of "high", then dwindling empire in the early 20th century. The television series, an ornate soap opera in Merchant-Ivory clothing that seems positively literary, follows the escapades of a highborn family of five and their legion of hapless servants. Everyone resides in an enormous and fabulous house named "Downton Abbey". In the PBS "Limited Edition, Original UK Version" blu-ray, among the "special features", you will find some lovely travel promotions about touring the actual location, Highclere Castle, rooted in a lush meadow somewhere in the English countryside.

Americans have always been fascinated with the British, both obsessed with and in denial about the "parental" origins of many of this country's settlers. We American promote our "revolutionary" start point when we abandoned aristocratic excess and became instead, pilgrims, a group known for aprons and prudence, and not for gorgeous fashion and opulent interiors.

The specifics of these national entanglements are dramatized in Downton Abbey via the marriage between a British Gentlemen, Earl of Something or Other and his rich American wife. They produce three daughters, eligible bachelorettes, each created from the DNA of crass American wealth and blue British blood.

There have always been distinct class demarcations in America, but our national dreamlife insists these divisions are flexible, bendy. In America, we might still believe that folks can move up and down the class ladder based on stuff like heart and grit.

No wonder the recession and its attendant crises in unemployment, debt, and housing should popularize a television show about a real mansion. The series allows audiences to fantasize about near-miraculous displays of wealth as they simultaneously explore the drudgery of work for those who sleep in tiny, dreary bedrooms on the top floors of Downton Abbey.

The upper class stories mostly concern the romantic sagas of the three noble daughters and the complicated British laws of inheritance that put ownership of Downton Abbey in peril. It's fun to see the eldest daughter Mary, of impeccable skin and posture, flirt with a throng of suitors, always falling out with perfect Matthew (Downton's heir).

However, it is "the poors" who are most fascinating. Their tragic exploits make for powerful drama. The lead valet, Mr. Bates, who is prone to an array of bad luck, both distracts from and displays the class inequality on which Downton and the series is built.

Brendan Coyle as John Bates

Bate's dignity (I think he may be the most dignified chap in the history of televison) demonstrates how his fate is a natural byproduct of class division. He shows up with a limp, and endures what might today be labeled "discrimination" due to his disability. But the injury exists as a kind of metaphor for his position in the class strata. In an early shot we look down at him from atop flights of narrow, circular stairs. How hard it will be for Bates, with his sad cane, to walk up and down these day by day, we think.

He often winces in agony as he helps the Earl dress. Later we learn he has decided to "cure" his lameness with a metal contraption that works as a kind of vice. When he lifts his pant leg, in a gesture of integrity, we see screws tightened into flesh that is bleeding, bruised, infected. Of course, this is often the plight of the poor. They try to "cure" their position, only to begin another cycle of difficulty that ultimately hinders any upward mobility.

While Bates is a paragon of gracious solemnity, he is also a magnet for disaster. His romance with the nubile lady maid, Anna, ropes her into his ongoing tragedy. The couple endure a series of events that go from bad to worse with 30 second interludes of ecstasy here and there. By nature, he will not catch a break. My favorite moment in the series may be when he hears for the first time a piece of devastating news about his fate. The moment is punctuated by Anna's harrowing wail. Bates endures the pronouncement with a facial performance that harnesses grief, glory and sex appeal.

Like the other servants, except the for villainous Tom, Bates is content with his lot in the service industry. The head butler, Carson, adores his role and seems perfectly satisfied to have given up family, romance, hobbies and life in order to run Downton Abbey. Though the Earl offers that he has "no career beyond the nurture" of Downton, the other characters are locked into grueling servitude that is far less cushy.

Though we feel compassion toward all of them, we don't really want revolution. When the youngest noble daughter makes off with her chauffeur in an act of mutiny, both characters are written off to Ireland, exiled. The series may dabble in politics, but it does not present the possibility for change.

The characters often lament that there has been so much change since WWI (its events affix to Season Two), but there actually isn't much modification to the basic class system that governs the castle (rather like class systems still in place today).

This blu-ray edition includes five "making of" style production spots on costumes, romance, WWI, Highclere Castle, and the crew's fastidious attention to reproducing historical detail with as much exactitude as possible. This effort is appreciated by fans and it helps anchor the melodrama in realism: authentic war medals, panels of onyx beadwork, period textiles, cast iron pots, and close-ups of telegraph wires, trains, and electric chandeliers. There are always trays of crystal, silver flatware and china teapots being rushed about, some overthrown on accident at dire moments.

The cast interviews in some of the special features reveal a strange class division that permeates the set. Those playing the nobles get to film in the actual castle, while the actors playing servants are relegated to recreated sets of period kitchens, basements and backrooms. There is also, we hear, "costume envy" amongst the cast. Actresses playing Ladies, in keeping with historical accuracy, must have an abundance of lavish dresses. The maids, forsooth, have only two outfits, both dreary.

If you're the type who likes Jane Austen adaptations, period films, beaded costumes, high melodrama, high empire, corset laces, kitchen scullions, dignified men of stoic countenance, and zingers tossed off in British accents, then watch this. If you are lucky enough to have not yet seen any Downton Abbey, then go ahead and get started ASAP.

If you think you can watch just one episode and then carry on with something constructive, think again. Prepare yourself and your surrounds (stock your kitchen/put the cellie on silent) because Downton Abbey is a highly addictive castle romp. You can make your way through this collection, including special features in a little under 18 hours if you hit it straight through -- and you likely will.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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'Curb Your Enthusiasm' S9 Couldn't Find Its Rhythm

Larry David and J.B. Smoove in Curb Your Enthusiasm S9 (HBO)

Curb Your Enthusiasm's well-established characters are reacting to their former selves, rather than inhabiting or reinventing themselves. Thus, it loses the rhythms and inflections that once made the show so consistently, diabolically funny.

In an era of reboots and revivals, we've invented a new form of entertainment: speculation. It sometimes seems as if we enjoy begging for television shows to return more than watching them when they're on the air. And why wouldn't we? We can't be disappointed by our own imaginations. Only the realities of art and commerce get in the way.

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Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

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