Downton Abbey: Week 6 in Review

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: This week’s double dose of “Downton Abbey” was one of the best episodes (well, technically two best) that I have seen this season. Minus the pointlessness of Cousin Rose (seriously, I don’t want to know what they’re going to do with her thoroughly obnoxious character) despite introducing us awkwardly to the fabulous underground party world of London in the 1920s, many very interesting story points were introduced. Characters often stuck in their ways proved to have more complexity than their starched exteriors often allow. Relationships developed and grew with a surprising level of intimacy, trust, and knowledge. And finally, we got to see Carson playing cricket. With so much to possibly focus on in this episode, I’m going to tackle a few points that I have been particularly interested in all season.

Thomas. The servant you love to hate to love to hate to love. Thomas, for me, has represented so many levels of pathos that it might be easy for many to write him off as a figure of melodrama. However, he demonstrates for me what is an essential component of the social, political, class-conscious world of Downton; he is a practitioner of the “unthinkable.” Before the war, he was boldly attempting to form romantic liaisons with various aristocratic male guests (once succeeding). He smoothly enjoyed (and still does) manipulating members of the servants’ hall, taking his actions to the next level every time, whether it’s by sabotaging Mr. Bates, O’Brien, or himself. He purposely wounded his hand in the war so he would be able to come back to Downton and avoid a fate worse than a hand wound. And at the culmination of all of these events, he freaks out, violently, angrily, and often quite helplessly. The frustration of Thomas clearly propels him to keep pushing the envelope for the sake of finding happiness inside. This event with James we could see coming, but the scene preceding the incident, that showed Thomas pacing in his tiny room, thinking, hoping, struggling, convincing himself, I found to be incredibly moving, because it did not feel out of the ordinary for Thomas. It was ritualistic, and hence more troublesome. And then, in the days following, like so many other times he has been wounded in this way, he tries to make things right, tries to be unobtrusive. When Kieran Branson arrived, he was laughing at his antics along with everyone else.
But everyones’ reaction to the incident, who knew of the exact discourses, I found to be shocking. Beautiful, in many ways, yes, but I wonder if they were realistic for the time period? Either way, everyone from Lord Grantham to Carson to Bates seemed to have an unusual amount of sympathy for Thomas, regardless of his often unpleasant and scheming demeanor. No one was really very surprised at Thomas being outed, which may speak to everyone’s sympathy. It made me think about the secrets that circulate around Downton from season to season, and the importance of avoiding a scandal at all costs. Last week, the Dowager Countess refused to make a scene at Isobel’s over Ethel’s position there. Suddenly, the Dowager (albiet, for her own “Machiavellian” motives) supports Edith’s newspaper column. A part of me doesn’t want to believe that the kindness and understanding surrounding Thomas’s outing is only for the purposes of avoiding scandal. The reference to Oscar Wilde by O’Brien (snarky on her part, yes, but nonetheless relevant and reverent for a modern audience) brings to light the fact that homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967, though one would, perhaps, assume that the aristocracy and those serving it would be less patient with an alternative sexual lifestyle (or an attempt at one) than was legal. But this reaction seems to speak to an understanding of a very private and very delicate matter, which at Downton is expected to be handled with the utmost etiquette and dignity. Thomas is not “foul,” nor is he “beaten,” but exposed and made vulnerable in a way that he is all too familiar with.
Oh that cricket game. I cannot begin to understand what made me so happy about everyone in their sporting whites drinking tea and watching the likes of Carson, Thomas, Mosely, Lord Grantham, Matthew, and Branson (I’m still having trouble calling him “Tom,” just because I’m so used to him being “Branson,” so I’m with the Dowager on this one) all run around and play and shake hands with each other. To quote “The Philadelphia Story,” “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the sight of the privileged class enjoying its’ privileges.” Said tongue-and-cheek of course, but the same principle somehow applied to that cricket scene. Was it the tea? Was it the pearls? Was it Mary and baby Sybil? Was it the lovey-dovey nature between the family and the servants? Was it because it all felt so rare an occasion, or because, at Downton, it didn’t really feel that rare at all? Who knows? But all I know is I want more cricket games in the future.
NAVA BRAHE: Since Sonia tackled the Thomas issue in such depth, all I will add is that Lord Grantham’s admission of having to rebuff what sounded like countless advances from his Eton classmates, sounded rather hollow. You would think that a man of his standing would be more homophobic than he was portrayed, especially given his resistance to change.
The storyline I most enjoyed through both episodes was Robert Crawley’s discomfort over the changes taking place at his beloved Downton, along with his desperate attempt to keep things status quo. I really admire Matthew and Branson (I’m with Sonia on this one!) for standing up to him, especially Branson, who even though he transcended class via marriage, has been able to adapt, despite his original stance as a socialist revolutionary. I admire his ability to grow up and realize that not only is Downton his daughter’s legacy, it has become his as well. Of course, the women had to exert the only power they had back then, which was to gently cajole the men into doing the right thing.
The one point of historical reference that sent a chill down my spine was when Robert went on about the high-yield “schemes” he’d heard about, particularly the one by Charles Ponzi. I wondered if Julian Fellowes deliberately included that as a dig towards all the Americans who got taken by Ponzi – and in essence – Bernard Madoff – or, if it was meant as the last nail in the coffin of Robert’s obstinate attitude. It makes for a better storyline to see Downton change with the times, as opposed to going on as if the post-war world had remained the same. From the looks of it, the Great Depression will have to be written in at some point, so it will be interesting to see how Fellowes depicts its effect on the Crawley family, their staff, and the estate.
For me, the house/village cricket game was reminiscent of a corporate softball game I participated in years ago. We weren’t quite as elegant or refined, but the idea of the gentry mingling with staff and villagers is not all that different from corporate management getting down and dirty with the peons. You rub shoulders for a few hours, then everyone returns to their assigned stations. It is a necessary ritual, albeit one that carries with it a certain level of discomfort. If you screw up on the field of play, as Molesley did after he talked such a good game, how will it affect your standing in the real world?
The cousin Rose storyline, along with Edith’s encounter with her new editor, seemed superfluous and boring. Is Rose meant to be the anti-Sybil; what we thought Sybil was going to turn into instead of what she actually became, or is she just a frivolous diversion? Of course, Edith has to meet up with another unavailable man, only this one, like Jane Eyre‘s Mr. Rochester, has a crazy wife locked away in the attic – er, asylum. Poor Edith just can’t catch a break.
Lastly, the Dowager’s Ethel flip-flop came as no surprise. She and Cousin Isobel’s rivalry is at once amusing and intriguing, because we never know where it will take us. At first, I was more sympathetic towards the Dowager, since Isobel was portrayed as pushy and nouveau riche. Now, my sympathies lie more with Isobel, as she seems to have grown into her role in the Crawley family, without coming across so shrill and ambitious.

HOWARD MEGDAL: I think of Cousin Rose as the lone blemish on an otherwise delightful Downton Abbey. Julian Fellowes has birthed many characters we adore; indeed, it is their company I believe so many of us who watch Downton Abbey are seeking out, not some new plot twist.

Basically, Cousin Rose felt like an excuse for a single shot: of Matthew, Edith and Rosemund entering the jazz club. That’s a ton of wasted screen time for a single visual joke.

But truly, watching Bates putting his life back together, Thomas fight for his, and the eloquent way the two paths intersected was interesting enough as plot and a perfect vehicle for us to partake deeply in the downstairs crew. I particularly like the extent to which Mrs. Hughes feels more comfortable half-jokingly chiding Carson for being Carson. And I adore seeing Ms. O’Brien consistently press her advantages, letting her bitterness turn victory into defeat.

I thought the Ponzi reference was less of a shot at modern Americans, and more for Fellowes to make it clear: Lord Grantham knows about having money, but he hasn’t the first idea about how to make it. And Molesley can talk cricket, just not play it. Am I the only one who hoped, desperately, that he’d star?

But between getting our moments with Anna and Bates in their new cottage, or even the rekindling of Matthew and Mary, complete with the best Lady Mary line of the season, “You’ll make me untidy”, this episode gave closure in every significant way but one: who won the damn cricket match?!?

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Modern Family: Season 4, Episode 14 – “A Slight at the Opera”

KIP MOONEY: It’s episodes like this that remind me that Modern Family is sometimes a show divided against itself. There’s the sharp, hilarious stories it tells for its best episodes and the aggressively mediocre ones it uses to pad out its weakest. This episode had 100% of both.

So let’s get the bad, or rather the pointless, out of the way. Gloria and Alex at a psychic? Completely unnecessary and proof that this pairing doesn’t work. Alex trots out plenty of jokes about how psychics are scam artists and Gloria believing everything the brúja says wholeheartedly. There was already plenty of great stuff going on, so this was completely unnecessary. I’m tired of wasting writing space to hoping Modern Family will eventually write an episode where we don’t see characters for episode(s) at a time simply because they don’t have any great material for them. Not every episode needs a separate plot thread for each character.

And what on earth was Claire doing this episode? Her pratfalls prove she’s no Phil and the quasi-revenge plotline on Phil’s forgetfulness was just a complete waste of time. Granted, I did like Haley and Dylan’s surprisingly good parenting qualities, and how they both ended up in a Phil-and-Claire-like argument. (“I thought it could be fun.” “All you do is have fun, while I’m doing all the cooking and cleaning!”) But I would have much rather stuck with our two stories, which was an embarrassment of riches.

This episode gets its title from Manny being upstaged at Cam’s production of The Phantom of the Opera (which is likely way too long and advanced for middle schoolers, but Cam has never thought about things like that) by none other than Luke. Originally hired to paint sets, it turns out he’s got a halfway decent voice and is at least suited for the part. I like to think he and Manny both share an affinity for capes.

But the grade-A material gets saved for Phil and Jay’s golf match against Mitch and Pepper (Nathan Lane). Turns out everyone here is seeking some sort of approval: Phil from Jay, Mitch from Jay, Pepper from Mitch. Jay, of course, just wants to win this round. The golf games of Phil and Mitch have drastically improved and it’s a nailbiter until the final putt. A great running gag is that Phil has never heard Harry Chapin’s 1974 hit “Cat’s in the Cradle,” which is hilarious considering Phil has nicknamed his arms as the Captain & Tennille and England Dan & John Ford Coley before. That sort of wuss-rock should be right up his alley.

When Pepper plays it for the group on the way back to the clubhouse, everyone starts bawling and it’s at once hilarious and touching, which are the show’s two biggest attributes. Phil, who was going to bail on the Phantom show ends up returning and getting a big surprise not only from Luke being onstage but also from his own dad (a too briefly used Fred Willard—keep him around for a couple episodes, guys!) sitting next to him.

This show can and has achieved greatness, but it’s got to stop diluting it with meaningless plots. More putts, fewer psychics.

The school paper’s review of the last musical before Cam took over: “Anything Blows”

Pepper: “Let’s make it a foursome.”
Jay: “That’s the first time that word’s ever scared me.”

Mitch: “Dad used to say, ‘Nice throw, Nancy!’ Nancy was our neighbor. I could never throw as good as she could.”

Pepper: “I like big putts and I cannot lie.”

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Downton Abbey: Week 5 in Review

NAVA BRAHE: Oh, the poor Crawley family. The fact that they had to make a show of it by keeping the stereotypical stiff upper lip in the face of Sybil’s death really got under my skin. I don’t think there is anything wrong with a little keening or wailing under the circumstances: a 24 year-old girl is struck down in the prime of her life, leaving behind a grieving husband, family, and a newborn child (not to mention a houseful of well-meaning servants) who will never her know her, is deserving of some screaming, crying, and the flinging of breakable objects. Then again, I am not British, and I am sometimes known to wear my heart on my sleeve. Of course, in the best of British families, behavior like I just described would lead to banishment in the attic. Or, to one of the attics if you reside at Downton.

Episode 5 was akin to riding shotgun in a car with someone who drives with both feet. The emotional constipation exhibited by Robert and the Dowager made me queasy, as did Robert’s obstinate attitude towards baby Sybil being baptized in the Catholic faith. Ladies Mary and Edith continue to exhibit progression towards modernization by making peace with their sister’s life choices, but Robert’s behavior goes beyond the typical parental protective mode. It is clear that he is as eager to abide by his deceased daughter’s wishes, as he is to follow Matthew’s advice on how best to preserve his ancestral home. In many ways, you can’t blame him for his attitude. If you are a person who lives life believing it is God’s will that you are who you are, then there will be many realities you will have trouble facing. Robert’s behavior reminded me of Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II, in Stephen Frears’ amazing movie. The Queen. If Elizabeth believed it was God’s will that she be queen, then why wouldn’t Robert believe it was God’s will that would see him through tough times? Anyway, I don’t want to delve into the religious aspect of it; from my perspective, there is much more to avoiding painful realities than simply hiding behind God.

Again, there were more conveniences written into the plotlines: Mrs. Bartlett somehow fessing up to her original story finally getting Mr. Bates sprung from prison; and the Countess getting Dr. Clarkson to convince Robert and Cora that the likelihood of Sybil surviving eclampsia was not very likely. Both storylines wrapped up very nicely with those two events, further illustrating the powers of persuasion the British gentry possessed. Or was it Julian Fellowes’ way of mocking the wealthy and their detachment from reality?

My favorite scenes in the episode involved Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore standing up to Mr. Carson as he attempted to berate Mrs. Patmore for coming to the aid of Ethel the prostitute-turned-cook. Second, it was wonderful how the Crawley ladies stood up to Robert en masse by refusing to leave Isobel’s home before finishing the lovely luncheon Ethel prepared for them. And finally, kudos to the Dowager Countess for uttering, “It seems a pity to miss such a good pudding,” in the face of Robert’s harsh judgement of Ethel. In my opinion, that was the best food-related line of dialog since Anthony Soprano, Jr. exclaimed, “What, no fucking ziti?” upon hearing that he would not get to eat his grandmother’s baked ziti at his birthday party.

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: In echoing Nava’s observation of the emotional constipation of this episode, I found the stiffness in the days following Sybil’s death to be just fascinating to watch. Frustrating, of course, also from an American perspective, but at the same time I can completely imagine the benefits of holding one’s self together for the moment, then on one’s own, in a safe place, letting it all out. But the moments of letting down their emotional guards seemed to speak volumes. Elizabeth McGovern as Cora (probably because she, along with Branson, is not keeping it together for the sake of appearances as well as Lord Grantham or Ladies Mary and Edith) is becoming the most interesting character to watch for me. The intensity of her gaze at Dr. Clarkson in the Dowager Countess’s parlor was numbing and beautiful, punctuated by her mutual breakdown with Lord Grantham at realizing Sybil’s death could not have been prevented. It was a solid moment of emotional breakthrough for the two of them which, in recalling previous seasons having gone through it all from affairs to miscarriages to potentially fatal illness, puts them once more back together as a couple who truly loves each other.

Speaking of which, can we talk about Mary’s line to Matthew, “I don’t want to take ‘us’ for granted”? There has been some concern this season about a coldness from Mary, something that has kept her distanced and conservative in her emotions, particularly towards Matthew. And yet, in thinking of Sybil’s death and Branson’s recent status as a widower, she declares to Matthew something that we all have been speculating about: is she taking her new marriage for granted? Perhaps relying on it too strongly for her ascension to the role of Countess, and hence Lady of Downton? But I think that her feelings here were genuine in not wanting to lose Matthew, who reassures her that he will always love her. But, then again, that doesn’t really mean anything in the practical sense. I think that Lady Mary is grappling with her own fears following Sybil’s death, from children to marriage to how her family keeps peace within itself. Hoping these trials will allow for us to see more of her humanity.

I maintain that whenever we see Anna Bates with a huge smile on her face that something very very bad is going to happen. Her breaking the “much needed good news” of Bates’s release gives me that gut wrenching feeling from season two, where everything was so right then so wrong then so screwed up within the trajectory of about an episode and a half. I’m very glad Bates is coming back, for sure, but I don’t trust the length of this newfound elation at Downton for a second.

HOWARD MEGDAL: We tend to agree on these episodes broadly, so I’m surprised that I took so much more pleasure from this episode than any other this season, or apparently, than the two of you.

Listen, they are reserved in their grief. This isn’t a Neil Simon play; these aren’t the Jews of World War II-era New York. These are British aristocrats, and I’m pretty sure a more emotionally emotive set of responses would have run false.

Moreover, we had plenty of that in the last episode. This was about the quiet moments after Sybil has died, the funeral has come and gone, and now the family is to live with its grief. This felt pitch-perfect to me, and we didn’t need to jump through entirely too many plot-twists to get there.

This episode, for the first time since arguably, season one, allowed us to sit with the characters, let them breathe, let us breathe. Nothing really happened, other than the resolution of the Bates storyline (and Julian, you better not be jerking us around again, not so much for the sake of Bates, but because I’m not sure your own show can withstand being overwhelmed by it). My goodness, remember when Bates was a conflicted, complicated character allowed to do things other than sit aloft his miscarriage of justice cross? What a waste of Brendan Coyle this has been.

A couple of lines didn’t quite ring true for me- Mary talking about taking the marriage for granted was a necessary revelation, but the formulation felt a bit modern to me. And Carson saying “I am who I am” was a bit too Gloria Gaynor of him.

Let’s not forget to discuss Daisy’s big move from kitchen mouse to potential heiress. Her hesitation about it makes sense; truly, she seems to hesitate about everything (let’s not forget the hours we spent waiting for her to show a little bit of kindness to William). This takes the idea to its logical extreme: here Daisy, take a huge amount of money and property, and give up a job you hate watching people ignore you! What? You need to think about it?

I love the periodic return of Mr. Mason, however. He’s wise, he echoes William’s kindness as a kind of Yahrzeit candle to him (though he’d probably not use quite that phrase), and he sees long-term economic trends in a way Lord Grantham clearly doesn’t.

Oh, and someone needs to send Edith some Dorothy Parker clippings, stat. She’d be a perfect inspiration, and a contemporary!

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Downton Abbey: Week 4 in Review

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: In the still relatively new season of “Downton Abbey,” we get an episode so full of sorrow, confusion, and woe that it feels, like tragedy, so out of the blue. Sybil was my favorite of the Crawley sisters, and her relationship with Branson was in turn one of my favorite love stories. Her death felt like one of a dear but distant friend, whom you have always loved and admired and who always gave so much with every decision and every action she made. The glee with which she displayed her turquoise harem pants to her shocked family in Season 1 will never be forgotten, and will always be my favorite moment at Downton. A woman “at the height of her happiness” departs from this world and leaves behind all that she has been so important in anchoring.

I truly didn’t want to say that I saw this coming at the beginning of the episode, with the constant reiterations of Sybil being healthy and alright and comfortable. What made the scene of her death and those that book-ended it so particularly painful was the very obvious shock from the Crawley family and the servants that something of this magnitude could happen, and in turn affect every last person in the house in a different way. More hauntingly so was Sybil’s shock at her own pain in her last moments before her seizure. Sybil’s death was depicted very differently from Lavinia’s silent demise, and certainly not as bittersweet as William’s, or as secretive and sequestered as Pamuk’s. It was violent, awkward, honest, and ugly. It was not a gentle peaceful passing, not was it something kept confined to the smaller wings in the house. Her entire family was there staring, horrified, at a human death unlike what they, minus potentially Sybil, have seen before. This realism, I feel, was necessary to provide that numb, silent pang of suffering that shook the house like lightening, and sent Downton into slugging disarray.

The reactions to the deaths throughout the house were fascinating to watch, especially among Sybil’s closest family. Mary’s coldness maintained in the form of a reserved distance from the situation, taking the place of her mother as Countess in keeping the household running in proper manner and etiquette (wondering about how this event will play into her own decisions about having children). Cora’s bedside vigil following Sybil’s death, delivered in an extraordinary performance by Elizabeth McGovern, cast a macabre veil over their previous scene together, as Sybil was settling down to rest after giving birth. Thomas’s reaction, as the villain treated kindly by Sybil in their wartime service together, was heartbreaking, and reminded me of the degree to which Thomas has suffered in his life, and how rare those people like Sybil are to him. Yet the entrance of the Dowager Countess in her mourning attire, her solid and human moment shared with Carson that united them in sadness and strength, and the otherwise prim and smirking face we have come to love and take solace in on this show gave forth the pathos of a woman processing the death of her youngest granddaughter. And poor Branson, holding his newborn daughter as he fades into the window of a house that marks an institution he resents, as well as some of the most pivotal moments of his life.

Without Sybil to mollify her family members and bridge the gap across political and social lines, the obvious conflict will occur between Branson and Lord Grantham, over many if not everything. Now we have introduced this resentment of Lord Grantham by Cora, who wanted to get Sybil to a hospital when Dr. Clarkson suggested it and Lord Grantham sided with Dr. Tapsell, saying Sybil should stay at Downton and that everything would be fine. Cora punishing Lord Grantham is a plot line that I see getting very old very fast, quite the opposite of the Thomas/Jimmy story line which, with Thomas’s burst of vulnerability following Sybil’s death, might take some interesting turns. And what’s to become of this new evidence in Bates’s favor? For the time being, these questions will have to wait as I, and many others, mourn losing the revolutionary, the gutsy, the elegant, the warm, the compassionate Sybil we loved so dearly.

NAVA BRAHE: I could not possibly add anything to Sonia’s description of the events leading up to, and following Sybil’s death. What I would like to tackle, however, is what this portrayal of a young woman’s demise in childbirth means outside the bubble of popular culture.

I read something yesterday comparing “Downton” to any other soap opera when tragedy strikes a beloved character. What differentiates “Downton” from a typical soap opera, many of which have met their demises in recent years, is the reality of the lives portrayed in this series. There is no fantasy or alternate universe here, like there is in “Genoa City” on “The Young and the Restless,” or on popular British soaps like “EastEnders” or “Coronation Street.” When I watch an historical drama like “Downton,” what keeps me coming back is the painstaking attention to detail paid to the lives of each character, not whether so-and-so will miraculously come back from the dead after the previous actor wound up on the wrong side of a contract negotiation and was written out until a proper replacement could be found.

What I believe Julian Fellowes has done in the third season of the show, is give us quite an education on what life was like for women in the 1920s. We see how hard the female servants must struggle to not only hold down a job, but to preserve their honor, even though their very existence means little to the majority of the people they serve. This was clearly evident when Isobel’s cook, Mrs. Bird, refused to work with Ethel, quitting her job to preserve her good name. Apparently, the very whiff of scandal surrounding Ethel could not only tarnish the good name of her employer, but those of her fellow servants.

Then, we have Lady Edith Crawley. Who could have foreseen an even greater tragedy than getting jilted at the altar? Edith seems to be heading in the right direction as a modern woman, seriously considering the magazine job against her father’s wishes. What woman in the year 2013 could imagine having to make that choice? Unfortunately, a decision like that was a fact of life for women of Edith’s generation. Even if they were not to the manor born, a woman had to self-scrutinize her every move in order to maintain her precious reputation.

Now, we have the ultimate sacrifice made by Lady Sybil Branson: death in childbirth. Here, Sybil had no choice but to surrender herself to the care of two male physicians, each believing they knew what was best for her. The more sympathetic of the two, Dr. Clarkson, knew Sybil was in danger, and wanted to do everything possible to save her life, as well as the life of her child. True, a Caesarian section in 1921 was not the routine procedure it is today, but Dr. Clarkson seemed to have a better idea of the danger Sybil was in. I was horrified at the lack of confidence Lord Grantham had in him, based solely on his supposed misdiagnosis of Matthew’s spinal injury. Dr. Tapsell, on the other hand, exhibited an arrogance that was shamelessly misogynistic, making it seem like childbirth was something so routine, that a lady’s maid could deliver a child while simultaneously lacing up a corset. His demeanor spoke volumes about how upper-class men viewed women. It was utterly shameful.

Lastly, Cora’s reaction to Dr. Tapsell’s neglect, and Robert’s decision to allow him to continue attending to Sybil, illustrates a distinct “Americanness” that no proper British woman could conjure. As touching as Violet’s encounter with Carson was, she seemed resigned to yet another tragedy in her family, rather than angered at the squandered opportunities that could have saved her youngest granddaughter. Cora’s reaction was genuine anger at her husband, and rightly so. If he would have stopped to consider just how risky childbirth is, he would not have allowed Dr. Tapsell to placate him with his dismissive attitude.

Yes, we got quite a lesson in Episode 4. I always joke that I never would have fared well as a nineteenth century woman, what with all the corseting and coquetry that would have been expected of me. I don’t think I could have handled an early twentieth century upper class English life, either. If Sybil were my daughter, I never would have let a charlatan like Dr. Tapsell anywhere near her. Sadly, the decision most likely would not have been mine.

HOWARD MEGDAL: I, too, wouldn’t have done well with corsets, Nava. You are not alone.

I tend to agree fully with how you both have described the death of Sybil; terribly affecting, and from a dramatic standpoint, not the worst idea. Sybil’s drama was, to an extent, played out, I believe, with the new baby in tow. Still, a difficult loss, especially as such a likeable character on Downton.

By the way, that other character we are browbeaten into liking, Bates, struck a very different note this week. That the Bates storyline was criminally absurd has gotten ignored, thanks to the death of Sybil. Just to recap, we have:

1. The time when pie was made as an exonerating detail from Vera’s friend.
2. That somehow, the guard and Bates’ cellmate conspire to get Bates to tell the cellmate exactly what will free him, and why. This, despite the fact that they are sworn enemies.
3. Then, the cellmate and guard managed to take this information no one actually can believe Bates would give them, and fix things- presumably, Vera’s friend is no more. What else? Could a prison guard and prisoner have enough money to bribe her? She’s dead, right?

But seriously, what is this storyline? And was it really necessary for Bates, as he’s meeting with his lawyer, to emphasize that all he could think about was Lady Sybil, who he’d worked for over a period of what, a few months? We get it. He’s virtuous.

We loved Lady Sybil because she wasn’t always striking one note; her upbringing, and her desire to do right, came into constant conflict. Oh, if only Julian Fellowes would allow for a bit more depth and variation in Bates.

Regarding Ethel, the high comedy of seeing Isabel deal with whatever that kidney souffle turned out to be, and imperfect tea, was a distinct pleasure, watching ideals come up against realities. But for me, the conversation between Carson and Mrs. Hughes about Ethel was similarly enlightening. By the way, this ties into my point about Bates.

Carson is my favorite character. It’s not even close, and I am partial to many others. Do I agree with his old-fashioned views of women? I do not. Was it probably hard for some in the Downton audience to hear him describe Ethel in such irrevocable terms? Certainly, and far less would be tolerated out of, say, Todd Akin.

But this is part of the depth of character Carson embodies. It wouldn’t seem right for Carson to embrace liberalism here, any more than in his reaction to the idea of Lady Edith writing for a newspaper last week. Now, I certainly don’t agree with that, either, and Sonia and Nava provide ample evidence that Lady Edith needn’t avoid these pursuits because of her gender.

But this is Carson. He is absolutely fleshed out and human.

If Fellowes isn’t careful, he’s going to try and force feed us so much of Bates’ goodness, we’re all going to turn on him. And I don’t want to live in a world where we need to start rooting for that odious cellmate.

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Modern Family: Season 4, Episode 13 – “Fulgencio”

KIP MOONEY: I’ll just come right out and say it: the last five minutes of this week’s episode are the funniest since the pilot’s introduction of Lily. That Godfather parody is so spot-on, so hilarious, that I just want to watch it over and over.

But how did we get there? Phil, so determined to resolve his kids’ problems through kindness, ends up hilariously exacerbating each situation, including asking a lesbian neighbor out for a “boys’ night.” This episode featured Grade-A material for Ty Burrell, and he should definitely submit it for his Emmy consideration (though last week’s episode would have won him the award, too).

It wasn’t just Phil who journeyed to the dark side, though. In a hilarious reveal, we find out that Gloria (who has been known to decapitate rats and fake labor) is actually even more diabolical than we thought. Not only did she steal her sister’s job opportunity in America, she actually stole Jay from her as well. This season has introduced material that has made nearly every character unlikable in some capacity, but it’s only endeared me to the show more.

And who has become this show’s secret weapon but Lily? Though she’s previously only existed to give Cam and Mitch some rote parenting material, she’s turned into a sass queen, calling out her dads for taking too long (“Today, ladies!”) and complaining too much (“Do I need to call you a wambulance?”). Though they both assume she’s picked up their habit for being too catty, it’s actually Claire whose viciousness has rubbed off on her.

Now, as great as Elizabeth Pena (a great Latina character actress best known for John Sayles’ classic Lone Star) was as Gloria’s mom, her mother-in-law stuff was nothing we haven’t seen before. She deserves a better part, but a recurring role on one of the biggest shows on TV is nothing to scoff at. I did like the little scene where Claire explains to Jay that he’s finally the one with a relative he can’t win over, no matter how hard he tries. “Son of a bitch, I’m Phil.”

If everyone was as funny as Phil—and a lot of characters are getting there—this show will be worth tuning into for years to come.

Crispin, on his boyfriend’s DIY perm: “What do you think? Drag production of Annie?”

Jay: “Fulgencio Umberto Pritchett? His initials are going to be F.U. Pritchett, and that’s exactly how I feel right now.”

Phil: “Never ask me about my business, Claire.”

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Downton Abbey: Week 3 in Review

NAVA BRAHE: A guinea for a bottle of scent? I was surprised to see the Dowager Countess in the least concerned about how much a bottle of fragrance from the venerable British perfume house Penhaligon’s would cost her (yes, I recognized the signature shopping bag). I wondered: which scent does she wear? Hammam Bouquet, which can come across as somewhat musty and “mature,” or, does she dare break with convention and anoint herself with Blenheim Bouquet, traditionally a bracing men’s scent, favored by many women. I’m guessing she wears Blenheim Bouquet, because it is better suited to her direct, no-nonsense nature. According to the Penhaligon’s Web site, Blenheim Bouquet, created in 1902 and named for the Blenheim bloodline, consists only of top and base notes, with no middle, or heart notes. In the world of perfume, this means the scent is linear, with no significant variation, much like the countess herself.

Lady Mary is becoming as annoying to me as someone flushing the toilet while I am taking a shower. Now that Matthew has “invested” in Downton, she seems to have become more uptight, rather than relieved by the fact that her ancestral home and lavish lifestyle are no longer in limbo. The scene in the newly commandeered sitting room was telling, when her dismissive attitude reared its ugly head at the thought of becoming pregnant. Now that Matthew has cemented his position as both heir and savior of Downton, of course he wants offspring of his own. Is Mary afraid there won’t be enough funds to hire the army of nannies she would require to rear her children?

The Branson/Sybil storyline, and the re-appearance of Ethel, the former maid, illustrate the convergence of a dying world of unrealistic, genteel values, and the harsh reality the servile caste must contend with. The Crawley family cannot stomach the impropriety of having an Irish revolutionary in the family, even though Lord Grantham grudgingly agrees to get him off the hook for participating in the torching of a home. Ethel must give up her son to his grandparents in order to provide him with a better life. She has shamed herself by working as a prostitute, and is refusing cousin Isobel’s altruistic overtures of assistance to help turn her life around. I’m guessing that the shunning she took from Mrs. Bird, Isobel’s cook, is what she’d be subjected to if she took another job in a wealthy home, and her dubious former occupation was discovered. Is that really enough to keep her from earning a living to support her son?

Ultimately, the gentry and the servile caste might end up closer than anyone thought, if Matthew is not able to persuade Lord Grantham to address the evidence of financial mismanagement he does not want to acknowledge. Since I started watching the series, I find myself wondering if the show will endure to include the Great Depression. Considering the latest financial crisis we’ve experienced, it would be interesting to parallel the modern “Great Recession,” and the fall from grace of so many nouveau riche, with an event that destroyed generations of privileged families who knew nothing of a life other than the one they believed their birthright entitled them to live.

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: One of the major criticisms that this show has received is its supposed glorification of the upper classes with a seemingly complacent attitude from the servants. Though I can see where these critics are coming from, I have always defended “Downton Abbey” saying that the commentary on the British class system is subtle and not overbearing, but ever present. Episode Three, however, seemed to address these issues of class head on. As Nava stated, the Branson/Sybil plotline meshing with the Ethel tragedy provided the loudest roar I have ever heard from “downstairs.” I sincerely hope episodes with intricacies like these continue this season, because I am growing very tired of Mary’s icy demeanor and incessant snobbishness.

To insist on having Sybil and Branson stay at Downton for their own safety seems as if it will pose many perfectly placed intersections of dramatic tension with the Crawley’s, with the staff, or even with England. Can we really trust that Branson is going to “behave” himself while huffing and puffing about being away from Ireland? Similarly, can we assume that everyone will be as kind to him as they were before he abandoned a pregnant Sybil in Ireland?

What did we think of Branson grabbing Mary’s hand in the foyer insisting that she not inform anyone of his being there? What do we read in her face? There seemed to be some shock and horror, as if Branson was once again her chauffeur breaching an imaginable barrier between them. But at the same time, there was a strange closeness there, a vulnerability on both sides in that one strange moment. I wonder where their plot line, if any, will go, especially given Mary’s reserved attitude towards her new husband. Matthew seems to be emerging as this beacon of goodness in his rescuing of Downton and brotherly affection for Branson. However, it all seems too good to be true on Matthew’s part. Somehow I’m not buying his all-encompassing gallantry.

Speaking of looks: Thomas’s reaction to Jimmy, the new footman? It has been so long since we have had a good Thomas love interest (anyone still sobbing over his suicidal soldier in Season 2?), but I’m seriously foreseeing that this will go horribly wrong at the hand of O’Brien. The two are at war, and the two have very little qualms about ruining other peoples’ lives. Drawing our attention to the brief scene where Thomas checks in on Jimmy while he is undressing, did we notice O’Brien lurking on the other side of the door frame when Thomas leaves the scene? This could get ugly, should O’Brien decide to out Thomas. But until then, I’m curious to see how Jimmy is going to shake up the downstairs plot.

As she does every week, the Dowager Countess has the absolute best lines of the episode. Her backhanded compliment/command to Edith: “You’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do.” I so wish the Dowager Countess was there to give me some sassy motivation when I get lazy! It seemed to do Edith good, since it seems she is emerging as a published and prominent speaker for women’s rights! How about the Dowager Countess’s comic bubbling during the Crawleys’ interrogation of Branson about how tasteless the house was that the Irish revolutionaries destroyed? Priceless timing embellished with her earnestness. I really enjoyed this episode, I’m hoping we get some more of this snappy writing and twisty character development.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Agree with both Nava and Sonia that this is a dramatic improvement on last week; Julian Fellowes, at last, takes some time from racing through plot and allows the complicated characters in Downton time to breathe. Remembering Season 1, when luxuriating in their presence was the overriding pleasure of the show, would do Fellowes good as he plans future episodes.

Naturally, we do have some plot; Branson’s naivety over how awful it would be to see a family crying as its house burned to the ground was an interesting reminder of just how sheltered his life had been, too, with so much of it spent at Downton. Like Sonia, I wonder about Branson’s treatment to come from Sybil’s family. As long as he was loyal to her, much could be evidently overlooked about his background. Fellowes is playing with us, I think, making it harder to root for the liberal underdog. That kind of complexity will go a long way toward making this more drama and less melodrama.

On the other hand, we have the thinly-explained Bates storyline, where he appears to fall out of favor, then back into favor, primarily so we can see Bates and Anna reading many letters at once, instead of piecemeal. Also unclear: if Anna wishes to visit Bates, why doesn’t she go and visit him? It’s not like she has to worry he’ll be away on business…

Still, the finest moments this week belonged to Carson, who received the chance to weigh in on a variety of matters, from toaster to Lady Edith’s writing (his preference not to say said it all). The more Carson I get, the better, frankly. This isn’t just because of the character himself, though that is clearly a large part of it.

Time with Carson means we are at Downton, something is likely being served, and the extent to which Downton is less a soap in period attire, and more a comedy of manners, is very much to its overall benefit as a show. Those moments are what imbue the dramatic turns with such gravity; it is why Lady Mary’s tryst had so much more impact in Season 1 than Branson’s arson, or any other twist, has had in Season 3.

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Modern Family: Season 4, Episode 12 — “Party Crasher”

KIP MOONEY: I would have expected a show like Modern Family to really draw out a big moment like the birth of another baby. Or to hold it until February sweeps. But this episode was full of surprises. From Manny’s first kiss to Jay’s girlish screams in the delivery room, there were all kinds of twists and turns.

Much like this week’s Happy Endings, this was an episode–as a review from the A.V. Club noticed–where you realize that many of the characters are not great people. They could only be tolerated by members of their own group. But that’s often a hallmark of a great ensemble comedy. (Cheers, Seinfeld and Community come to mind.) Case in point: Instead of waiting in line at the bakery for Manny’s cake, Jay and Gloria steal the cake from a young mother. Poor social skills, or even a blatant disregard for treating other human beings with respect, is no way to live your life. Yet it often makes for great comedy.

Even with hilarious running gags like Lily constantly getting injured (again, children getting hurt is not funny in real life), the show still managed to slip in an unexpectedly tender moment. See, Haley has been seeing her older co-worker (played to sleazy perfection by The League‘s Jason Mantzoukas, bearing a strong resemblance to sleazy older guy my sister dated in high school), which Phil doesn’t mind until he starts seeing him touch her. (As with Dylan, Phil is blinded by coolness.) Prompted by Claire–who recognizes a similar phase from her early adulthood–Phil gives Haley her credit card for dinner and a night at a hotel. Of course, he runs after her when she doesn’t immediately call his bluff, intent on kicking the guy’s ass (if only he had given his arms another great nickname like “Captain and Tennille”). But Haley does return, just in time to hear Phil say that “No guy is good enough for her,” let alone a creeper like this guy.

This episode would have been essentially perfect. But of course the episode with voiceover from Jay that started–I kid you not–with “There are lots of milestones in life.”  That horribly cliché segment aside, this episode had it all. Given its callbacks to other big events, it even could have served as a finale of sorts. Thankfully the show has been regularly terrific this season, so I’m glad it’s not over yet.

Mitch to Cam, about Lily: “Here’s where I point out that she’s five, and not a character from Dynasty.”

Lily: “It’s OK. I ate at the emergency room.”

Claire: “And what older guy wouldn’t want a young, newly legal girl?”
Phil: “I wouldn’t!”
Claire: “Really? Hermione Granger.”
Phil: [pause] “I’m just a Harry Potter fan! Yes, she’s matured into a lovely young lady and LUKE, I’M NEVER TELLING YOU ANYTHING!”

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Downton Abbey: Week 2 in Review

NAVA BRAHE: Oy…poor Edith. Those were my exact word after watching Sir Anthony Strallan play the role of runaway groom. And she looked so beautiful!

I have to admit that Edith has become a much more sympathetic character in Season 3, not just because she was left at the altar by Strallan; she seems to have gained so much poise and confidence after helping nurse the King’s soldiers during the war, as opposed to trying to sabotage Lady Mary in Season 1.  Her previous role was that of a typical middle sister, especially when one’s older sibling happens to be another girl.

Lady Mary seems to have gone in the exact opposite direction as Lady Edith. She is less sympathetic as Mrs. Matthew Crawley, trying desperately to preserve her way of life. She comes off more as a spoiled American socialite, rather than a dignified Englishwoman. Could it be that Lady Edith is being groomed to become the most modern twentieth century woman of all the Crawley sisters? Sybil has taken a backseat to Branson, but I can’t help but think there is much more in store for her.

I am thrilled that Mrs. Hughes’ tumor turned out to be benign, and am even more delighted at seeing Carson’s relief at her positive news. Carson’s commitment to tradition and loyalty is at once endearing and unrealistic, and in my opinion, makes him the real Lord Grantham, even though Robert Crawley possesses the actual birthright. He is the true guardian of Downtown Abbey, and no doubt appreciates its existence much more than the Crawley family does. On that front, it seemed rather convenient that Lavinia’s dying words absolved Matthew of his guilt; I have a strange feeling that Matthew’s latest inheritance might not be the answer to all of Lady Mary’s problems.

O’Brien and Thomas are set to go to war with each other in the most evilly juvenile fashion, which illustrates yet again how the downstairs intrigue proves much more imaginative than what  goes on in the library and sitting rooms. While the Crawley family does their best to avoid losing all they hold dear, the danger and potential jeopardy their servile counterparts must endure, is most often the most enjoyable element of the show.

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: Spinsters do get out of bed for breakfast, and Edith has exhibited so much strength these past few seasons, even if she doesn’t see it herself. The opening shot of the episode with the house a-bustle for wedding preparations and Edith, for the first time, with a Lady of the House glow of pride on her face gave me such joy. I don’t think I have seen her smile so much in one episode, yet what killed me the most was that her face became so much more open, her eyes so much more willing to take in the beauty around her. There wasn’t a single fear of heartbreak present at the beginning of the episode for Edith, which I find surprising in retrospect. I am predicting that this hardship will boost her as a character, as each of her hardships have done in the past. She sure as hell, as Nava points out, appears more sympathetic than Lady Mary at this point in the season.

What’s up with her, seriously? When Mary told Matthew she read Mr. Swire’s letter to show Matthew he really, truly, has nothing to feel guilty about if he gives the money to Downton, I thought she wrote it herself too. It’s seems like the type of thing she would do this season. There is such an odd dichotomy being played out in Mary so far. She is coming across as more calculating and proactive (insomuch that she is going after what she wants with seemingly little regard for anyone around her) and at the same time appealing, as Nava said, extremely spoiled. Not wanting to lose Downton in a sentimental way, for her family’s sake, or for anything other than her desire to be countess might make her behavior a little more understandable. I am wondering how this will wear on Matthew, who seems to be very tired of money matters, but who also desperately wants to help a family who has given him so much.

Completely terrified for what is going to transpire for Bates in jail. I have a terrible feeling that the more Anna finds out, the more she will fear Bates and grow away from him. What if Bates did kill Vera? For some odd reason, Bates’ “good guy” act is starting to show some more holes for me. Clearly, his cell mate is dead set on getting Bates in trouble while in prison. Will this mean further persecution for Bates? I’m sincerely hoping I’m just being negative and reading too much into it, because I can’t stomach seeing Anna unhappy.

My money’s on O’Brien over Thomas, personally. She can be a little maniacal when she wants to get back at someone (need we remember the soap on the bathroom floor and Cora’s miscarriage?).

HOWARD MEGDAL: Put my money on O’Brien too, Sonia. But at the risk of sounding negative about a show I enjoy, there were two particular points within this episode that I thought stretched the writing beyond its breaking point.

The first is that letter, one Sonia points out seems like it could have been forged by Lady Mary. Yes, partly, that is because of the nature of her desperation to hold onto all things Downton. But isn’t it also a reflection of the mere existence of such a letter being entirely too perfect? Really, if all there is to the story is that Lavinia, on her last day on earth, just happened to write precisely the words to her father that caused him to have precisely the reaction that allowed Matthew to feel okay about keeping the money from him because Daisy just happened to be in the room; I mean, a little much, no?

The other ridiculous use of the hour had to be the three times now that Ethel has very nearly asked for help from Isabel, only to run away. She’s expressed the same idea, that it is too late for her. What exactly is the suspense here? Isabel knows she has a child. Ethel knows Isabel knows she has a child. The same woman bold enough to enter the dining room with that baby suddenly can’t discuss the child with Isabel?

The payoff on this better be more than just the child; otherwise, Julian Fellowes is repeatedly going to the well for a surprise that every single person, on screen and at home, knows about already. It’s ridiculous, frankly.

Allow me to dissent from Sonia on the complexity of Bates; yes, I’d like to see Anna happy. But a little more variance to a character is more reminiscent of Season 1, which so far towers above Season 3. Fellowes, back then, allowed us some breathing room to consider who we might root for. He’s taking great pains now to make sure he paints every character in home and away jerseys. A little mystery, please.



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Silver Linings Playbook

SONIA BRAND-FISHER: How to put this gently… “Silver Linings Playbook” is a film that, for me, had enormous potential. With an A-list cast, a colloquial script, and a hand-held camera used to capture the intimate neuroses of a middle-class family in Philadelphia, there were moments of genuine enthusiasm and struggle. The film followed the family’s process of accepting one of their sons, Pat (Bradley Cooper), home from a psychiatric institution. The beauty of this film lies in the dynamics and layered dialogue of the central family, who prepare for each Eagles game with a series of good-luck rituals to keep up the juju while noshing on “crab snacks and homemades.” You seriously felt like you were in this family’s house, sharing their joy and anguish over everything from Hemingway to heartbreak. Yet, what seriously tarnished what otherwise was a current and down-to-earth film was the distorted and gut-wrenching representation of its women.

There were four main women in this film, all of whom we have seen represented in countless other films, let alone for eons as standard female archetypes. We have the Madonna/Whore complex going on between the “perfect” new mother, Veronica (Julia Styles), and her misfit self-proclaimed “slut” sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). We have the mother of the central family, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), who maintains a constant level of worry throughout the film (she has reason to, but still). And finally, the femme fatale, Nikki (Brea Bee) who plays Pat’s cheating yet perpetually idealized wife. With our pawns placed deliberately to protect the Hollywood-manufactured concepts of womanhood, let’s look at our leading lady Tiffany. I found her character, her affect, her words, and her placement among the other members of the cast to be problematic, to say the least. In her first sixty seconds on screen we are introduced to, not Tiffany, but the character of “the sexy crazy.” The Sexy Crazy enters with narrowed eyes shrouded in black eyeliner, a low-cut black ensemble, her hair in sexy snarls, and her lips in perfected pout. We learn of her various mental illnesses throughout the film, which she deals with by drinking and sleeping around. Instead of exploring mental illness with respect and empathy in a way that deepens her character and furthers the plot line, she is made into the easy-to-swallow Sexy Crazy, who can be consumed in one delicious gulp by those not expecting much from her character other than her sexiness. In Laura Mulvey’s canonical article “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” she describes Freud’s concept of scopophilia: the process of objectifying a person and subjecting them to the control of a curious gaze, often erotic in nature. She argues that the cinema has a fascination with women’s bodies more so than their characters, and for the purposes of the “male gaze” (the assumed consumers of cinema, and everything else) the camera deconstructs her body into pieces so that they can be viewed in scopophilic appetizers. In a series of shots, we are introduced to Tiffany by her breasts, her lips, her nail polish (black, of course), and her jewelry. From these snapshots, we are to assume her sex appeal, and we chuckle at Pat’s reaction to her.

But it gets worse. We learn that Tiffany has recently lost her husband and has been screwing her entire office (women included, cue drooling from Pat). Now unemployed, she tries to be “friends” with Pat (which we don’t believe for a second) and agrees to help him get Nikki back. What does she ask for in return? That he will dance with her in a dance competition. Do you know what this means? More chances for the camera to get all up in her body so she can be FURTHER fetishized, and we then get to bring in the even sexier detail that she is, as Pat says, “artistic”! She is hence compartmentalized in a way that makes her out as easy to “control,” and easy to understand. In a conversation between Pat and Tiffany in a diner, they have a talk about which of them is more crazy, with Pat making an uncalled for judgement that because Tiffany is hyper-sexual that she absolutely must be more crazy. Tiffany gets angry, throws a tantrum, and storms out. In a scene that I otherwise would shout “YOU GO GIRL!” I find myself cringing. Instead of appearing badass or strong, she looks childish. We see no signs of Pat’s remorse for this judgment as the film progresses. Instead, Tiffany gets over it like a good girl, lets Pat back into her life, falls in love with him and they dance together. Pat is made out to be “rescuing” Tiffany from herself, and we think it’s all so romantic. Way to go, Pat, for having a film system in play that cares enough about your struggle as protagonist to have your neuroses put forth in a way that is understandable yet compelling so you can come out on top! The only moment where Tiffany is represented as more than an object is when she lists all of the coincidences to Pat’s family that suggest that the Eagles will win the big football game. It’s a very cool moment, and redeems her in the family’s eyes as more than just a siren. But it is a short lived scene, and can only be punctuated by a sultry stare off-camera while she swigs a Budweiser.

Look, I don’t mean to tear apart a movie that, at its core, I think, had really good intentions. Robert Deniro as Pat’s father brought so much pathos and conflict to the central plot, and he did that thing where he is such a good actor that you forget he’s a movie star. I love that. I loved his family. When Pat was bursting into his parents’ room at 3 in the morning complaining about “A Farewell to Arms,” it was a scene of comic brilliance. It was. But why on earth did a film with so much strength and heart feel the need to set its female characters back into archetypes? Why is Veronica seen as domineering for succeeding at having a home she loves, a husband who respects her (but who is apparently suffocating under her “control” of him), and a happy lifestyle? Why do we get no sense of Dolores’s personality outside of the love she has for her sons and husband? Why is Nikki not allowed to speak? And what are we “supposed” to see in Tiffany? And don’t say “that wasn’t the focus of the movie,” because I’m not buying that excuse anymore. These questions need to be asked of films that, otherwise, could have been so good.

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Free Online Content, and Its Discontents

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: Does anyone else worry that the proliferation of free online content has increasingly devalued the sorts of artistic media (writing, videos, pictures, music etc.) that can be freely and easily distributed online to the extent that it is going to ultimately discourage creative people from going into those fields (i.e. getting liberal arts degrees) since they can’t really profit from doing those things– which is going to degrade the quality of that content overall until it’s really not even worth paying for anyway?

I mean, not that you need a degree to make art or to write; many people do that very well with no background or education. But overall, if people are not obtaining educational backgrounds and skills and guided experience in those fields, I would argue that in general, the overall quality of the majority of what is produced might eventually start to go south.

Also, no one out there is suggesting that an accountant or lawyer give away free services or consultations on the internet. No one asks someone who produces and sells goods to give those away for free on the internet.

But artists, writers, musicians are encouraged to give away their handiwork for free on the internet. If they ask for money for it, they are spurned.

When I look at writers from my parent’s generation, many of them started out in journalism, working for newspapers and magazines as their careers. They were able to make a solid living as writers; their skills and efforts were monetarily compensated. To someone from my generation, who does the majority of their writing for free or for token payments, this seems like a fantastical concept.

I’m not sure what the solution to this is– but I do feel like we can start by not sympathizing with the backlash that various news sites have gotten for erecting paywalls in order to access their content. After all– they are businesses. Businesses need to make money. It costs money to produce content for news websites; to pay writers and editors and fact-checkers and web developers, etc. etc. I’m ultimately tired of the idea that high-quality content on the internet– articles that took weeks to research and write; songs that took months to write and record; videos that someone spent time and money and energy creating, should be viewed by the general public for free.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I wish that every quality site that has a loyal readership would, if not erect a paywall, then at least have a prominent paypal donation button so that people can show their appreciation and put their money where their online bookmarks are. If everyone did it, then it wouldn’t be as tacky and weird for those few who did give the general public a way to reward them for producing high-quality content. And it would be a reminder (and a better reminder than those sad, sad sidebar ads about losing bellyfat and getting car insurance quotes) that quality content isn’t free to produce, and shouldn’t be free to consume.

AKIE BERMISS: Free online content. While many have moved on the practical solutions to this new state of things this is a question of — still! — grave importance to me.  iIs been over a decade since the mp3 was introduced to the world and still the music industry is reeling from the blows of that technological leap.  And still they are being dictated to by the medium as opposed to controlling it.

Now, that said, there is something to be said for this hyper-democracy in the arts.  Everyone can do anything:  You want to make a movie? Buy a camera for a couple hundred dollars, some software for another hundred, and buy some online classes for some chump change.  [or: use you're increasingly adequate-for-cinematic-shooting smartphone to shoot footage, torrent a cracked copy of the necessary software, and watch a couple dozen youtube videos about how to use it -- you're ready for the "bigtime."] That kind of availability of the means of art-making have made big companies a significantly less critical to making said art.  Add that to something like Facebook or Twitter and you’ve got publicity.  If you can compress your work down to something capable of being enjoyed — so to speak —  on a smartphone or tablet device and you’ve got the beginnings of viralcy (and then he coined a term).
Sadly, yes, this also means that anybody with computer, a smartphone, and the internet can make a movie, an album, write a “book”, produce a photo album — whatever.  And so, yes, quality has taken a STEEP nose-dive in many areas.  Music, for example, is basically whatever is gone viral that year.  You’ve got a couple of giants from before everything came tumbling down who can still run the market for a few months [see: Jay-Z/Kanye West] but basically, you need to be exceptionally flamboyant to get any traction on the internet.  Attention spans have dwindled to the 15 seconds an average youtube ad might be (some people can’t last even that long) so the first thing after the add better be giant boobs and/or guns and/or a barrage of bright colors and rapid sounds.  Or, you’ve lost them.
I still — still! — maintain that this can be ameliorated but the options for turning the tide become less and less reasonable the more we allow this kind of thing to run rampant.  I think the last best hope is for skilled individuals in each field to take a stand.  This will mean taking on the spurnage that comes of making people pay for your music (even if its something as little as spotify).  We need to get together and say, this isn’t free, go screw yourself if you want free stuff.  I think the result will be a short-term loss of interest from people looking for what is free and then a burgeoning interest in those with disposable income when they realize that there is something cool and elite and hip out there that they can get for a bit of treasure [see: Apple for the last decade, pre-iphone 5].
For the only way  to separate the wheat from the chaff is to separate the wheat from the chaff.  If one truly believes one’s work is better than what Joe Blow makes in his/her bedroom then one shouldn’t put it on facebook for free like Joe Blow did.  One needs to come up with an intelligent way to have one’s work compared to Blow’s but ascertained as something better.  Now, if that means SOME free content or going directly to discerning listeners or creating buzz or something — one can do that.  But, as Molly insinuated, there has to be some different experience between getting amateur stuff and getting stuff from professionals.
The pitfall of my plan? Turning all the arts into what classical music has become in the last 50/60 years.  Making an elite club is nice when we’re all young and monied and can adore each other.  Eventually, you get old, and busy, and die and then you’re left milking the survivors til there is nothing left.  We should be careful we don’t become too exclusive or esoterica — there is no longevity in it.
In the end creativity must be applied not only to the art work, but the business of the arts as well.  Most folks working with artists (A&Rs, Agents, Managers, etc) are giving you the same old line about everything. They want artist to act as if the internet is just part of the same old infrastructure — and not something wholly different.  I could write more, but I have to go update my facebook, twitter, and google+ profiles before people forget about me and get distracted by something Will.I.Am has done. Again.
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