Feb 28, 2012

Downton Abbey

The latest example of the coming of age of the television medium is Downton Abbey. In the old days of TV, each episode of a show was a self-contained story. The problem was introduced in the opening scene and solved 44 minutes later. By the end of the season, the audience had seen 22-24 versions of essentially the same story.

Notice this guaranteed that the TV medium as a whole could be nothing more than a factory of generic story product. Then Steven Bochco showed everyone that the real potential of the medium came not from a single episode but from an entire season. Instead of being film’s tag-along little brother, TV could tell its stories on a canvas ten times the size of a feature film.

In story terms, this meant, above all, interweaving multiple story lines over many episodes. No longer confined to a 44-minute straightjacket, the writer could get at a deeper truth by using film’s unique crosscutting ability to compare and contrast storylines.

Set in an English country house (more exactly a castle), beginning in 1912, Downton Abbey takes this multiple storyline approach to the extreme, so far having tracked the stories of 33 different characters. The question arises: what techniques does writer Julian Fellowes use to take this multiple storyline show to the highest levels of the TV form? I’d like to focus on two above all: story world and character web.

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. Downton Abbey has one of the most detailed story worlds in television or film, and all of these details have been chosen and created by the writer.

The first key choice Fellowes made in the story world had to do with placing the characters in pre-World War I England. This allowed Fellowes to work in the fabulous TV genre of historical epic (Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire). The Crawley family will stand for all of England at a time when England was about to undergo some of the most radical changes in its storied history. In the Anatomy of Story Masterclass (called The Great Screenwriting Class on CD), I talk a lot about the advanced story world technique of placing the characters between two social, or historical, stages, when society undergoes a relatively sudden shift. This highlights the forces of change acting upon the characters, so the audience focuses on how they adapt to these forces, and whether they do so in time to avoid their own destruction.

Fellowes uses another advanced story world technique by focusing not just on a family, but on a system, with highly defined roles, hierarchy, set of rules and values. Just as the American epic, The Godfather, depicts a family that is part of a mafia system, Downton Abbey’s family and servants are part of the British class system. This rigid system organizes and divides people in two fundamental ways, by wealth-power-status and by gender.

While any system is trouble for the characters trapped within it, it is tremendously useful for the writer. It gives Fellowes an almost unlimited number of permutations for conflict, which means he can not only run these oppositions as long as he wants to write the series, but can also make each individual episode extremely dense with conflict scenes.

Notice a system also gives the writer an extra level of depth for every character in the story. Even the most powerful character in the hierarchy, aristocratic father Robert Crawley, is enslaved in some way by the rules, values and expectations on which the system is built. And the least powerful character in the hierarchy, scullery maid Daisy, becomes heroic in her efforts to better herself against tremendous systemic forces and in her determination to do right by the dying soldier who loves her.

Over the course of the series, Fellowes has combined these two techniques – the changing social stage and the enslaving system – to give him the overall story path that each character will play out. World War I was a huge fulcrum for change in England, and even a network as old and powerful as the British class and gender system must bow to its awesome force. In simple story terms, the characters move toward equality; the rich and the men lose some of their power, while the poor and the women gain in power. The magnificent castle becomes a place for soldiers to recuperate, the aristocratic daughters act as nurses, one marries a mechanic, and the rich father can do nothing but accept it.

Closely connected to the story world is a technique I call “character web” (again for full details on this important technique see The Anatomy of Story Masterclass). Character web has to do with how all the characters in a story are connected to one another, which both helps to define and distinguish each of the characters and makes this story, with these characters, unique from every other story. Another advantage to placing the story within a social system is that it makes it easier for the writer to come up with a unique character web. The characters are all part of the same system, but they are distinguished by being in power – upstairs – or being out of power – downstairs, being male or female, by what role they play in the family and in the house, and so on.

On top of these basic distinctions, the writer can then add structural differences and subtleties. Here Fellowes borrows heavily from a fairy tale technique, refined by Jane Austen, which is the three sisters. The eldest and most beautiful, Mary, carries the main love storyline with the cousin who will inherit the house. Edith is the plain and resentful second sister unable to find a proper mate. And Sybil is the youngest who attacks the system by marrying the mechanic.

Of course, many stories have been set within the English class system. So the writer has to come up with a way to distinguish this character web from all the others. Fellowes uses a number of techniques to do so, but the most interesting one for me is how he depicts the upstairs characters. In the vast majority of British class stories, especially those written in the last hundred years, writers have depicted the aristocrats negatively, as the enslavers of those who work for them or those unlucky enough to be born poor.

And with good reason. While upper class characters aren’t at fault for being born into an aristocratic family, they do run a system that makes it virtually impossible for the vast majority of citizens to achieve anything close to their true potential in life. The history of American storytelling is defined largely by the principle of the individual creating, and often recreating, himself (for example, Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby). By contrast, the central hallmark of English storytelling has been a fixed self, determined almost totally by whether the individual inherits or fails to inherit the family fortune.

But that’s not how the upper class is defined in Downton Abbey. Yes, the entire plot is generated from the fact that a total stranger and distant cousin inherits the vast family fortune which then radically alters and jeopardizes the future of the three aristocratic daughters. But the aristocrats in this story are not evil, or even bad. Quite the contrary, the enormously wealthy head of the family, Robert, is probably the most positively portrayed character in the entire web. When the Titanic disaster shifts the inheritance to cousin Matthew, Robert could fight it with his powerful connections, and probably win. But he refuses to do so because it would be illegal and worse immoral.

All the aristocrats have their personal flaws, as all well-written characters do, but they are essentially good and decent people. Far more surprising though is that Fellowes depicts their exercise of power in a positive light. The simple rationale is that they are providing stable, paying jobs along with a good home for people who otherwise would have nothing.

Similarly, Fellowes doesn’t portray the servants as freedom fighters going up against the powerful in a terribly unjust system, but as children happy to play their roles in the larger family and thus intensely loyal to their masters. The benefit of this approach is that the characters are surprising and the overall character web is distinct from most other depictions of the British class system.

But the cost is immense. While I love following the beautifully woven trials and tribulations of this loving extended family, I occasionally feel like I’m watching a British Gone with the Wind. Sure, the blacks are all slaves in that world, but Tara is such a bustling happy place, run with love by that benevolent dictator with a heart of gold, Gerald O’Hara. No wonder that even the lowliest black character finds living out his role in the plantation family so comforting. Isn’t it a shame the Civil War came along and destroyed such a beautiful world?

You can’t have it both ways. Just because you show decent aristocrats doesn’t mean their exercise of privilege and power isn’t terribly destructive. Just because you show poor or uneducated people happy in their roles doesn’t mean that they aren’t enslaved and possibly forfeiting a much deeper happiness and fulfillment in their lives.

Fellowes depiction of the system as essentially beneficial is the greatest flaw in the construction of Downton Abbey, and is what in my mind prevents it from reaching the top echelon of works of art in this amazing medium of television. But we’re talking about extremely rarified air here. Anyone who wants to create their own series, or who just loves television, would be wise to study this show to see the techniques of a master writer.