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.