Downton Abbey, the New York Review, and Jumping the Shark

When mighty intellectuals get into pop crit, things can get weird, and James Fenton’s entertaining discussion of “Downton Abbey” in The New York Review of Books is a case in point. Fenton is an English poet, critic, editor, scholar, commenter on U.S. politics, etc. — Oxford-educated at “Maudlin” college and all that — and I’ve read him a lot, with admiration, but I don’t get the feeling, when reading him on “Downton Abbey,” that he’s really the guy to be determining whether the “broad strokes of the brush” the series indulges in are dramaturgically OK or not, and especially whether the series “jumps the shark.”

He says it has and does, and that it’s OK. I think he’s confusing a soap, which DA is, and which by definition (mine) can’t jump the shark, having no rules, with a dramaturgically ruled show, which can jump the shark by breaking its own rules and becoming a soap.

But before getting into that I should note that my response to Fenton on DA isn’t mere Anglophobia. I had a similar response, though more acutely, when Lorrie Moore, to me one of the most adept short-fiction writers of my generation, and as far as I know a U.S. citizen, weighed in, also in NYRB, on “The Wire.” Moore advised us at length and in detail, and I think some time after “The Wire” was over — no sordid news cycle at NYRB! — that the show was really very, very good.

Wow. Thanks for the newsflash, teach. There’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.

And I must say I expected a bit more from Lorrie Moore. Yet this is what can happen when the too-smart start tubing. Easy writing, hard reading.

One way this subject goes, for me, has to do with how the whole idea of jumping the shark has been widely misinterpreted, not only by intellectual types delectating the joys of TV but by many of us. For Moore, and for many other fans of “The Wire,” there’s no way that show ever jumped the shark. I think it did, in the third season, in Omar’s and Brother Mouzone’s showdown under the streetlights.

The moment a show jumps the shark isn’t the moment it goes wrong, goes too far, makes the plunge into a finally unacceptable degree of tackiness, as I think Fenton implies in his NYRB DA discussion. I think many of us use the term that way. But the Omar-Brother showdown isn’t a tacky or bad scene, exactly; in fact, it may be one of the wittiest and most gripping scenes in the series.

The only problem with the scene is that the characters involved never would have done what they did in it. And it was a rule of “The Wire,” in seasons one and two, that characters never do things they wouldn’t do, that situations pleasing to filmmakers and sophisticated audiences never dictated action. All the wit of the Omar-Brother showdown — the streetlights casting long shadows as in the western-movie showdown cliché, the point of Omar’s duster now revealed — swept the characters and the action into an authorial description of characters and action that the first two seasons had rigorously eschewed. The eschewal made the show.

You don’t get to change all that in season three. All options are not open. That’s dramaturgy.

No — that’s drama. Fail it, and it doesn’t matter how smart and passionate you are, you’re making “Treme.”

But the showdown wasn’t the bad moment. It was only the moment when you were forced to acknowledge that throughout the whole season, you’d already been half-consciously tolerating slippage from the dramaturgical rules that once had made the show what it once had been. The DA and the head of the wire crew becoming lovers and doing expositional pillowtalk? McNulty and Beattie getting together and McNulty sobering up (all handled in scenes of pure exposition)? Bullshit. Then anything can happen.

When you’re stuck with characters that have to “develop” or die, the show becomes a soap. The shark-jump moment comes when it’s finally forced upon you that for a long time now, you’ve been forgiving failure to adhere to the rules that made the show what it was, forced to acknowledge that your show is a soap. With “The Wire,” for me, that moment came with the elevation of the writers’ and directors’ vanity, in the showdown scene, about their own prodigious talent and intelligence, over the characters and action that the first two seasons had promised us those qualities would be dedicated to serving.

See, it’s not that Fonzie can’t jump a shark. If Fonzie water-skied, of course Fonzie could jump a shark. Fonzie doesn’t water-ski. Furthermore, he doesn’t go on vacation with the Cunninghams, and if he did, Potsie and Ralph wouldn’t be going along too. Does Fonzie really live over the Cunninghams’ garage? I’m not sure. What I know about Fonzie is that he does make jukeboxes work and he doesn’t fucking water ski.

The problem was that Henry Winkler did water ski.

Like Murphy’s going to have a baby. Like Frasier is going to celebrate Halloween, in costume, at home, with his father, and Roz, and the whole gang, also in costume. Like Daphne even knows Niles exists, let alone becomes his girlfriend. None of that stuff ever happened.

A show that’s a soap from the get-go, by contrast, can’t jump the shark, because a soap has no dramaturgical rules. I think one of the tricks nowadays is to start as a “rules” show — “House,” “Medium” — and then jump the shark early, and on purpose, in hopes of running long as a soap. “Mad Men” went meta on that issue when Don jumped into a pool over his kid, who was saying “I’m a shark!” Right at the moment when viewers were finally saying, “Really…? Don…?”

Was that a signal that if all goes well, we’ll get to see Don live through platform shoes, Watergate, MTV? Remarry, divorce again, get back with the first wife, become evil, become good, then step out of a shower like Bobby Ewing to say it was all a bad dream and it’s still really 1960? Not sure.

What show didn’t ever jump the shark? “Deadwood.” But it got killed and only got to have three seasons. A saving grace, perhaps. “Cheers.” “Seinfeld.” “The Honeymooners.” I’m running out of ideas here. But the broadness of the strokes, acceptable or otherwise, is never the issue.

If a show starts as a soap, it can’t become a soap, can’t jump the shark — and for God’s sake, people, that’s what DA is. No matter what happens on that show, however you may dislike it, there can be no fundamental betrayal of what made you like the show in the first place. If in 2032, they’re celebrating twenty years of DA, and the characters are gearing up for WWII, with almost no original cast members, but new ones whom audience has grown to see as quintessentially “Downton,” basic premises will have been not violated but fulfilled.

The Fonz doesn’t water ski, but there’s nothing “Downton Abbey” won’t do, except jump a shark.

[UPDATE: Or: I watch TV so you don’t have to.]

One thought on “Downton Abbey, the New York Review, and Jumping the Shark

  1. I am confused at to what you are calling a SOAP. Thus I am also confused ast tow why some SOAPs couldn’t jump the shark. Is Hill Street Blues a SOAP or DA? Seems like a bit of both.

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