Television review: The Shire and Downton Abbey.
Watching the second episode of The Shire last night was a necessary burden. I already knew I loathed it – but I had to give it a chance, either to redeem itself or to confirm my first opinion. Well, despite the flood of commentary talking of it as a guilty pleasure, I have to say that there are two possibilities: either I’m wrongheaded and stubborn in not wanting to persist with it further, or a whole lot of otherwise intelligent and reliable TV commentators have been hypnotised. For me, Peter Helliar summed up the quality of the series neatly when he tweeted that the Shire made Being Lara Bingle look like Q & A.
So why are people even bothering with it? I’m actually perplexed about this because the overall impression I get from the commentariat, (some of it sadly from the Fairfax press) is that this dire program will be pushed hard: i.e., given column space and granular analysis until it becomes the kind of bad-tv phenomenon that its producers obviously want. The genre is ‘dramality’ something that we should all be wary of: I remember a warning that C.S. Lewis wrote in one of the Narnia books, telling the children to beware of something that is neither one thing nor the other: a human/animal amalgam always ends up less than the sum of its parts. Thus we have, epitomised in The Shire, dramality: that misbegotten sooterkin of reality tv and scripted drama.
What is going on here? Am I right to worry? Well, let’s start with a simple question: why is The Shire so bad? I use the simple word ‘bad’ because there comes a point where only straight, simple words will do. You could empty a thesaurus looking for the exact combination of descriptors that would distil the putrid essence of this program but that would be to expend far too much energy on it. Accordingly I have promised myself that this article is the last oxygen I am going to administer to this hopeless case.
Saying exactly why it is bad will dignify it far too much and add to the weight of commentary on its writers, producers and the characters who play the parts assigned to them in it. So I will only tell you that its ethos, its look, its very concept made me depressed and also worried that its values might infect a whole generation of schoolkids with even more vapidity than they already have imbibed from our trash culture.It’s not that the morals of the characters in The Shire are any worse than those of fictional characters or of real people, however. But somehow the dramality format makes them more toxic. Why? Let’s explore a proper drama to compare: we have ample instances in news and commentary to test our discernment of moral values in real life.
Look, for instance at Downton Abbey, that reliable period drama where every character is a type. It’s none the worse for that, since there is a kind of morality play going on in every episode. And it’s not quite the paean to upper-class aspiration that some might think. The writer of the series, Julian Fellowes, though often accused of snobbery, has a neat way of making the viewer compare the actions and ethics of the different classes, and many of the servants come off as far more moral and admirable than the aristocrats. We see grace, altruism and tact employed downstairs in generous measure and see manipulation, deceit and self-interest on both sides. Thomas, the conniving footman, is seen to have a human side in the war. When he weeps at the suicide of a young officer, is he grieving only for the loss of a potential lover or is he truly compassionate? When O’Brien the lady’s maid takes a vicious revenge on her mistress, she repents and is seen to soften and have a change of heart.
By contrast, the seamless narcissism of the main heroine Lady Mary is disturbing (and is meant to be). She is a genuinely worrying character whose myopic self-interest never quite negates her attractiveness. In another age she would have been as unrepentant as her magnificently sociopathic grandmother. Maggie Smith is perfection in this role; she is the most wondrous-looking of a fabulous cast and a credit to the costume designers. She is a truly terrible character, one we can enjoy disapproving of even as we admire her hubris and her wonderful clothes. Indeed, Downton Abbey is sumptuous in its period detail; we are given aesthetic delight along with our little exercises in history, politics and ethics.
The flawed characters of Downton Abbey are presented in a way that encourages us to contemplate and question not only what happened during the period it portrays but by extension stimulates discussion of what is happening now. It is firmly fictional: we are always sufficiently removed from the characters to be able to judge their actions. But by contrast The Shire wants to bamboozle us into becoming teams that barrack for and against people who, though speaking scripted words, are real. Thus we are encouraged to enjoy condemning and despising vain silly manipulated girls and boys while buying the products that are spruiked in the ad breaks.
And that’s the real problem I have with The Shire. Neither one thing nor the other, it diminishes everybody’s reality and ultimately their humanity. It should come with a mental health warning.
Juliette Hughes is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.