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Apes on a Gilded Treadmill

The really tragic events at Downton Abbey are not Lady Cora’s miscarriage (brought about by the sinister, ever-machinating Miss O’Brien with a strategically placed bar of soap), or Bates’s unjust conviction for killing his wife (who ate a poisoned pie...

Why does everybody love Downton Abbey? Well, what’s not to love? Everyone who watches it compulsively admits it’s ridiculous; the shabbiest exercise in pointless and politically appalling manipulation currently on television, and everyone who watches it gets choked up at least once an episode. The series’ construction is so glibly contrived that you know what will happen next long before the person who writes it does. It isn’t much more than an Upstairs, Downstairs redux with a little pinch of homo and Shirley MacLaine—and she is ghastly in her all-too-few episodes, gratifyingly trumped on every hand by Maggie Smith, who trumps the entire show with no effort whatsoever—thrown into it. Because it’s the right-wing parody of Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End, as well as the liberal parody of Brideshead Revisited, it’s never so much what will they think of next that viewers wonder, but rather what will they eat next?


I believe it’s the complete shamelessness of Downton Abbey’s reliance on food to anchor it in any plausible reality that has great appeal for those of us who are also curious to know what Smoove, the vegan Real Husband of Hollywood, has to say about Taco Tuesday. Somehow a great deal of unfocussed intelligence has been loosely organized around the idea, if it is one, that civilization went into decline when the aristocracy stopped serving 14 courses at dinner. (If this were true, a chronological epic following generation after generation from Downton Abbey might incarnate finally as an episode of Girls.) Smoove’s recent theory that unused portions of the brain can be activated by eating tacos isn’t far removed from Julian Fellowes’s conviction that we can learn something important by watching members of two classes, poles apart economically but symbiotically dependent on each other, prepare food, eat it, and bring the greatest number of melodramatic conflicts to the most absurd conclusion possible before the next meal is served. The really tragic events at Downton Abbey are not Lady Cora’s miscarriage (brought about by the sinister, ever-machinating Miss O’Brien with a strategically placed bar of soap), or Bates’s unjust conviction for killing his wife (who ate a poisoned pie to make her suicide look like murder), but Ethel ruining the kidney soufflé for Mrs. Crawley’s luncheon, and the fact that Bates is never shown getting anything to eat in prison.


No one in Downton Abbey ever uses the lavatory, even when the vast but already amply populated house is turned into a recovery center for wounded soldiers. It’s possible, of course, that the people upstairs have no such needs, since colostomies were fashionable among the well-to-do during the Great War and afterwards. They might just hand the bag off to a valet or a lady’s maid when it’s full. But what of the prodigious quantities of urine and excrement undoubtedly produced by the kitchen staff, the menservants, and the parlor maids? Thomas, the man who would be valet, has seemed especially full of something he can’t get rid of throughout the last season, morphing from the coward who shot himself in the hand to get away from the trenches to the bold defender of the second butler he’s in love with. And what about those soldiers? Are they clenching their sphincters in terror of offending Sybil, the only truly sympathetic figure of the upstairs clan, who has become a nurse, to the horror of her father? As the cook Mrs. Patmore might put it, “If we can’t handle a bedpan for them that’s taken a bullet for King and Country, what kind of people are we?”


The New York magazine profile of City Councilwoman Christine Quinn reads like something written on a computer by a computer, like most magazine profiles. As an exercise in hagiographic groveling it even surpasses Vanity Fair’s coverage of movie stars. Quinn is the lipstick lesbian from central casting who showed up at Occupy Wall Street ten seconds after it became completely riskless, and roughly five minutes before it became de rigueur for every other political wastebasket to the left of Roger Ailes. The article presents Quinn as an exhilarating emotional enema for New York City after the long constipated reign of her mentor, Michael Bloomberg, who has spared us the nightmare of second-hand smoke in Central Park and obesity caused by very jumbo sugared drinks, while relieving us of the unsightliness of a hospital anywhere between the West 50s and the Staten Island Ferry. A truly golden age in our town for Lloyd, Earl Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, Chinese multibillionaires, Rudin Development, the Duke and Duchess of Duane Reade, the Marchioness of Chase, and the real estate portfolios of New York and Columbia Universities. An era extralegally extended beyond its terms with the eager complicity of Ms. Quinn herself, on behalf of a Mayor who again wishes to revise our municipal code before his promised departure from the throne, to allow his cronies to dump several thousand apartments with the square footage of Kleenex boxes on the market at $1,800 a monthly pop, while himself unwilling to inhabit Gracie Mansion because he considers it too small. (I happen to have seen the Maximum Leader’s estate in Bermuda, sometimes described as a “compound.” It is not a compound. It’s a fucking country.) The same issue of New York featuring a winsomely frappéd Ms. Quinn on the cover contains an appropriately miniature feature in which His Majesty himself is shown inspecting a prototype unit in a model housing gulag, standing between a Murphy bed and a gigantic flat-screen television, no doubt marveling that they can make such appliances that small.

It takes the reality testing of a paramecium to imagine that Christine Quinn, by virtue of her uncanny ability to emote at times when our allegedly soon to be former Regent tends only to purse his lips, would be anything other than Bloomberg II, her enjoyment of pork dumplings and spicy noodles notwithstanding. Or, as the geniuses who concoct the Post’s headlines tersely put it, MAYOR DRACULA.


There is a bus ad next to Webster Hall today for a movie called Bates Motel. I think I read about this somewhere—it’s supposed to be a prequel to Psycho. I had thought there had already been a prequel of Psycho made with Anthony Perkins in it, but I could be wrong. There was a time when I forced myself to become interested in motel development in California as research for a novel, but that novel was finished and published long ago. Even if Norman Bates and his mother are involved in it, I don’t think this subject holds any further allure for me, and in any case I’m sure it will soon migrate from theaters to cable television. Most movie theaters in New York these days are squalid and depressing adventures in architectural alienation anyway, and it isn’t likely that Bates Motel was directed by Bela Tarr or Michael Haneke, so there really isn’t any reason not to sample it at home while trying to fall asleep. If Bela Tarr should come out of retirement to do the remake, however, I will definitely grit my teeth and go.

Previously by Gary Indiana - Let's Face It