Monthly Archives: January 2014


For several months when I was in high school my favorite book was “The Strawberry Statement,” a first-hand account of the 1968 Columbia University uprisings by the 19-year-old James Simon Kunen.  Of course, even as a 14-year-old, I found those student protests slightly absurd, self-indulgent and somewhat akin to a temper tantrum, but I admired “The Strawberry Statement” itself because of Kunen’s breezy writing style, his you-are-there reporting and his disinclination to go in whole hog with the radicals.

More important, “The Strawberry Statement” realistically depicted what it might be like to head off to college at the very time I was beginning to get anxious about that upcoming experience. I read it as a guide to my future, a future that seemed exciting and important even if I didn’t plan to occupy the Dean’s office.

For my whole life, I’ve toted that book around with me as a talisman of the kid I used to be.  I’ve moved a dozen times and culled hundreds of books, but it always made the cut and still stands on my bookshelf.

Fast forward thirty years and I’m working for a corporate PR agency and one of my biggest clients is AOL Time Warner.  I’m invited to the lunch by one of their writers handling employee communications. As we make small talk sharing our life stories, he casually tells me that when he was in college he wrote a book called “The Strawberry Statement.”  Holy Toledo! This guy Jim Kunen who asked me out to lunch is actually James Simon Kunen, the author of the previously mentioned talisman of my youth.  This is almost like meeting Jerry Salinger and finding yourself with J.D. Salinger.

Of course I fall all over myself in a fairly embarrassing way telling him how much I liked the book etc, etc.  But in the back of my mind there’s this disquieting thought – why is James Simon Kunen, former revolutionary idealist, working as a company hack for one of the most corporatey, shark-infested companies in the world?

Now, it’s one thing for me to work in corporate communications.  As a right-wing Republican, I am ideologically inclined to be an apologist for The Man.  I don’t necessarily think corporate bigwigs are good people, although some of them are, I just believe, per Adam Smith, that a company that does everything it can to legally maximize profits will ultimately provide the most social benefit.  And I have no illusions about human nature, having absorbed the lessons of that other book from my teen years, “The Lord of the Flies.”  I don’t think there are more saints in government, the University or even the church than there are in the corporate world.   And you gotta work somewhere, so why not as a PR guy?

James Simon Kunen, though, is a different story; what’s he doing in a corporate headquarters?  And in employee communications, no less, which is the most propagandist wing in the communications field.  Even I wouldn’t have the stomach to write those feel-good newsletters, company magazines, and rah-rah videos  for very long.

I mention all this now because Jim Kunen has written a very good book on how he reordered his life when that job ended. Diary of a Company Man: Losing a Job, Finding a Life tells the story of how he got downsized (i.e., fired along with 500 other corporate employees when the AOL/Time Warner merger didn’t quite work out as planned.)

The story that emerges from “Company Man” is that of a typical idealistic Baby Boomer, someone who wanted to do good, but who also wanted to live a modest but comfortable life and send his kids to college.  Kunen started as a public defender, then became a journalist and somehow got talked into doing serious long-form articles for People Magazine.  Of course that couldn’t last at a magazine that takes the Kardashians seriously, so he wrote a heart-felt letter about the parent company’s mission to Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin, which resulted in his being brought to corporate headquarters to write the company’s “Vision and Values” statement. Ugh.  My heart sank when I learned this because I’d worked on similar projects for other clients and the end product is always the same: a bunch of words that sound like every other vision statement and end up forgotten almost as soon as they’re committed to paper.

But Kunen is a believer and not a cynic, so instead of rolling his eyes like I would have done, he plunged in and when that project was done he ended up writing and editing employee communications materials, apparently believing that the company did have a mission other than making money. Turns out he was smarter as a 19-year-old.

The first third of “Diary of a Company Man” describes Kunen’s ultimate disillusion with his corporate experience, which culminates in him being “let go” after eight years at headquarters.  It’s not a happy ending – when you’re dismissed in one of these massive lay-offs the company usually confiscates your badge and declares you persona non grata on the spot.  Kunen felt particularly aggrieved about going from a trusted team member to a potentially dangerous outsider in less than 24 hours and this part of the book is a cautionary tale for anyone who’s thinking about working at the highest level of a corporation.

The rest of “Company Man” is actually more important and profound.  Because what do you do when you’re an aging Boomer and you’ve lost your job?  Your chances of getting another job like the one you just had taken away are slim, assuming you even want that life back.

Kunen knew he was through with the corporate world and found his niche as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher for adult immigrants. His tale of how he arrived at this place is compelling, but even more heart-warming are the stories of his students, who still believe in the promise of America.   Many of them were trained in their native countries as professionals, but are working in the U.S. as housecleaners and other entry level jobs (for more on this see this promotional video). Their  slow mastery of English will help them rise in America.  So Kunen is an actual hero, and although he didn’t change the system as much as he might have once dreamed as a Columbia revolutionary, he has made a significant contribution to many people’s lives.

Obviously Kunen’s path is not for everyone.  Whatever fleeting thoughts I might have once had about teaching ESL evaporated as I read this book and realized I wouldn’t have the temperament to inspire students.  The sub-theme of “Company Man” is that career satisfaction requires you to match your essential nature with the right job.  A tragedy of our time is that so many of our most ambitious college graduates want to go into whatever is the most remunerative and high-status career at the time: medicine two generations ago; corporate law a generation ago; management consulting a decade ago; and now Wall Street.

And yet it’s a fantasy to think everyone can be matched to a job that suits his hidden talents.  As Megan Draper’s mother recently pointed out on “Mad Men,”  “Not every little girl can do what they want. The world cannot support that many ballerinas.” Or that many novelists, video game developers or professional basketball players.

Nor is it true that everyone who takes a do-good social service job is happy with his career choice.  Kunen himself started his career unhappily as a public defender and the schools are full of people who decided to teach because it seemed like a safe career choice and have come to loathe their students (and their students’ parents).

And here’s the other hard truth.  The job that you might be best suited for doesn’t necessarily pay enough to support you in the style to which you have become accustomed.  The house, the car, the two-week beach vacation, the occasional night out, the cable and internet service and all the other accouterments of middle-class life add up pretty fast.  I don’t know anything about the finances of the Kunen family, but my guess is that the decades  he and his wife (a former radio news reporter) spent at high-paying jobs laid the financial groundwork for this new career as an ESL teacher.

Thoreau was right when he said that most people live lives of quiet desperation and of course it was fine for him, unmarried and childless, to live a couple of years in Walden woods.  But what about the rest of us?  I think it’s clear the pursuing a career for salary alone is the path to a mid-life crisis.  Assuming it even lasts to mid-life, because that gravy train can end pretty fast, as thousands of investment bankers and traders have learned in the past five years.  It’s also clear that you shouldn’t just drift into a job that offers the path of least resistance, because to be bored by your job and not get paid well is no bargain either.  If you can’t find your dream job, the trick is to make smart compromises and find something that’s interesting and moderately fulfilling, while being careful not to conflate your job with your real life.

“Diary of a Company Man” won’t capture the imagination of the youth market like “The Strawberry Statement” did, which is a shame, because it’s a more valuable guide to real life.  It really should be required reading for every college student, even if it does lead to that uncomfortable conversation you need to have with yourself about what truly makes you happy.  But trust me, it’s better to have that conversation with yourself when you’re 21 than when you’re 41 (or, God forbid, 61).



Way back in April 1912, just after the Titanic went down with Mary Crawley’s fiance, Lord and Lady Grantham threw a weekend house party in order to troll for suitable marriage prospects.  One of the guests was Evelyn Napier, the son and heir of Viscount Bracksome, and a very suitable candidate he was indeed, except for his taste in friends.  Because it was Mr. Napier who introduced Mr. Pamuk, the Turkish diplomat, to Downton Abbey.  Lady Mary found Napier rather dull compared to his exotic friend and ended up welcoming Pamuk into her bedroom, which ended up being too taxing for the Turk’s heart.  Exeunt Mr. Pamuk!

I mention this ancient history because in the latest episode of Downton Abbey, Mr. Napier rematerializes on the Downton doorstep. It’s ten years later and he’s some kind of bureaucrat working on a survey of the economic viability of the local landed estates. He looks none the worse for wear despite having been wounded in the Great War. More important, he is apparently unmarried, and Mary, who had been so down-in-the-mouth about rejecting Lord Gillingham at the beginning of the episode, greets him with a smile the likes of which we haven’t seen since she broke up Edith’s marriage prospects in Season 2.

I’ve always been surprised at the number of young handsome swains who have been sniffing around Lady Mary.  You wouldn’t think there were that many unwed heirs in the entire Kingdom, but aparently they all want to marry Mary. Why that is, I’m not really sure, because she is, at heart, a very cold fish – spoiled, sarcastic, and world-weary.  Yet last week Lord Gillingham was proposing marriage after barely becoming reacquainted, and now here comes Napier with his mysterious boss, Mr. Blake.  It’s a near certainty that she will captivate either one or both of them.  (I love that Napier refers to Matthew’s death as “this ghastly business.” What quintessential British understatement.)

Am I being too hard on Mary?  Consider her response to the question of what to do with the estate land that became open with the death of their tenant farmer Mr. Drewe.  Embracing modern agricultural methods, she’s smacking her lips at the prospect of foreclosing on the property, but then Mr. Drewe’s son shows up, wanting to farm it himself. For sentimental reasons, Lord Grantham wants to let Drewe-The-Younger manage the property but needs to win Mary over. This is one time when Lord Grantham actually seems to have the better business argument (assuming the Drewes start paying their rent again); you have to be pretty far gone when the Lord makes more sense than you do, and Mary finally assents, but not graciously.

Speaking of the Drewes, here’s where my theory of the “Downton Abbey Law of Three” is once again proven  (the rule being, never explain something once when you can explain it three times).  First we learn that the Drewe family had lived there since the reign of George III, then that they were there since the Napoleonic Wars, and in case none of us were able to figure out when that was, Drewe himself helpfully spelled out that they’d been tenant farmers for “over 100 years.”

The Downton Rule of Three was also on display during the other major subplot of the episode: the ongoing saga of Anna’s rape.  Mr. Bates confronts Anna at least three times about why she is so cold to him before deciding to get to the bottom of it in true “Downton” style – by eavesdropping on Anna and Mrs. Hughes.  The characters on “Downtown” could work for the NSA – no secret is safe in that house, what with a servant lurking at every open door, listening at every vent or rummaging through every waste basket.

In any event, once Mr. Bates figures out that Mrs. Hughes knows the score he puts the screws to her – threatening to leave the house IMMEDIATELY if she doesn’t spill the beans.  And we know he will do it too, since he did the same thing after getting that letter from his wife several seasons ago.  Mrs. Hughes finally does crack, but not before making up a lame story about an unknown, unidentifiable perpetrator being the rapist.  And after a nice cry Bates goes to see Anna and acts like the Most Understanding Husband of All Time, offering support and comfort, saying there is no shame in it, and ending with “I never loved you more.”  Btw, you don’t think these people are saints?  Here’s what he says to her: “You’re made higher to me and holier because of the suffering you’ve been put through.”  It’s like she’s mortified her flesh like Saint Theresa of Avila.

Mr. Bates is a nice husband but not much of a detective, because when Anna asks who Mrs. Hughes fingered as the perpetrator, he says an unknown, unidentifiable outsider.  As we all know from seeing thousands of TV interrogations over the years, the smart approach would have been to say that Mrs. Hughes had pointed the finger at Mr. Gillingham’s valet and then watch her reaction. (“How’d you know” she would have gasped and he could have yelled, “Aha! I knew it!”)

downton-600x450 jan 27

Not surprisingly, Anna turns out to be right that Mr. Bates would want to kill her assailant because in the final scene of the show, he tells Mrs. Hughes that the incident is not closed and that whoever raped Anna is a dead man.  (Cue melodramatic music.)  Which makes me wonder if maybe Mr. Bates didn’t really murder his wife after all.  I’ve been waiting for that shoe to drop for some time.  After all, the idea that the first Mrs. Bates would commit suicide to spite him seems really far-fetched. In any event, I think it’s safe to assume that Lord Gillingham’s valet will meet his maker in an episode or two in some ironic or self-deserved way that does not involve Bates wringing his neck.  In a show like “Downton Abbey” the producers will not want to leave any moral ambiguity about this saintly but violent man and the best way to maintain this is to have someone else kill the valet.

Some other observations:

— This was not a great episode but it was the least stupid one of the season so far.  No one did anything spectacularly unrealistic.   It just seemed like yet another “bridge” episode between major plot developments.  But then again, the whole season has felt like a bridge from Season 3.

— The other major plotline of the episode involved Alfred’s attempt to get a cooking job at the Ritz hotel in London, in a cook-off that resembled “Top Chef”.  Was I the only one who noticed that the Ritz sous chef seemed to have Spock-like pointed ears?  Of course Alfred did not get the job – that would have required writing him out of the show (just like Mary is not going to marry any aristocrats who would insist on her moving to their own estates.)  This is not a fundamentally interesting plot, except that even trying for the position shows his ambition, which raises his stature in the eyes of the other servants.

— I thought that Mr. Carson was unnecessarily cruel in offering Alfred’s position to Moseley and then informing him with real glee that the offer was withdrawn.  First of all, why wouldn’t he have made the offer contingent on Alfred getting the Ritz position?  But more important, why can’t Carson understand that Moseley might hesitate to take a lower position?  In my own life, I’ve had dozens of conversations with colleagues who were up for other jobs and the first thing that anyone considers is whether this new job would be a step up or a step down in their careers.  Poor Moseley has always suffered from that most despicable of flaws: the inability to keep his ambitions, status anxieties and feelings of triumph under wraps.  All of us have these feelings but if you can’t hide them people will treat you with disgust. I have a feeling it’s not only Mr. Carson whose bugged by Moseley and his ilk.  I think Julian Fellowes himself is too much of a snob not to have true sympathy for the lower middle class strivers who worry too much about appearances.

— It looks like Edith is pregnant.  I guess she didn’t borrow Edna’s birth control manual the night of her sleepover with Mr. Greggson because there she is, mysteriously visiting a doctor’s office.  Someone should do an entire essay on how “Downton” deals with medicine, especially issues related to the reproductive organs. We all remember how Matthew Crawley miraculously overcame his impotence; and how a simple, undetectable procedure ended Mary’s infertility.  Last week we saw that Edna was confidently able to practice birth control in an era before the invention of the pill, latex condoms or diaphragms.  In season one, an eye doctor was able to miraculously fix Mrs. Patmore’s eyesight and last year a doctor was able to diagnose conclusively that Mrs. Hughes did not have breast cancer.  And now it appears that Edith can get good guidance on whether she’s pregnant (I bet she’ll be over in Germany with the now-incommunicado Greggson before the season is over.)  If only we had doctors like that today!!

— What’s up with Baxter, the new lady’s maid?  First of all, considering all the problems they’ve had with that position, why would they rush and hire someone recommended by Thomas, of all people?  Second, are we really going to witness another conspiracy involving Thomas and Cora’s lady’s maid?  Are we really supposed to believe her only role is to function as Thomas’ early warning system?  I gather we’re supposed to deduce that she’s a decent person who’s beholden to Thomas in some way (sigh, here we go again.)

— I’m a little bored with Isobel’s do-goodism.  I think the Dowager Countess speaks for all of us when she says: “I wonder your halo doesn’t grow heavy. It must be like wearing a tiara ’round the clock.”

— So Tom wants to go to America?  Actually that makes a lot of sense.  Sybbie doesn’t really have a bright future at “Downton.” She’ll literally be the poor cousin growing up in that house.  She’ll develop aristocratic aspirations and pretensions but won’t have the resources to live that kind of life if she can’t snag a husband.  I understand that Shirley MacLaine is returning later this season to reprise her role as Cora’s blunt American mother (a development I am dreading.) Maybe she will take Tom back with her and set him up in the U.S.

— Theme of the week: the rapid advancement of the modern era.  Sewing machines, refrigerators, tenant foreclosures, declining feudalism. What, no flappers yet?

— Funniest line of the week:  When Lord Grantham says “If we don’t respect the past, we’ll find it harder to build our future,” his Mother is aghast to hear that he made it up because he might have an inclination for poetry.  “One thing we don’t want is a poet in the family,” she says. “The only peer that I know was a poet was Lord Byron and we know how that turned out.”  Right, Byron was described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” after having an incestuous relationship with his sister and ending up dead in 1824 during the Greek war of independence. Not much chance of that happening to Lord Grantham.

Cedric Killings

For all the alarm about cord-cutters, mobile viewers, Aereo, Netflix, fast-forwarding and the other perceived challenges to television, the broadcast industry’s biggest threat may be hiding in plain sight: the country’s unsustainable fixation with football.

Football is the single most important programming component of the television schedule.  The upcoming Super Bowl will be — by far — the most watched show of the year, and it could very well set the record as the most watched program in television history. On weeks when NBC airs “Sunday Night Football,” the network routinely wins the week; on weeks when it doesn’t, not so much.  Football is an important reason that ESPN can command the highest carriage fees in the industry.  The lack of football is the reason that ABC has a prime-time audience that’s 60% female.

And the importance of football goes beyond the sheer number of its viewers. It has the right kind of viewers – those elusive young men who can’t be easily enticed to watch prime-time programming.  Better yet, because football is primarily watched live, there is no skipping through the commercials.

So no wonder the networks are in thrall to football.  It brings huge audiences and attracts hard-to-reach consumers who actually watch the ads. And the sport seems as popular as ever.  Together, the five networks that carry the games averaged 17.4 million viewers during the 2013 regular season, higher than any regularly scheduled prime-time broadcast series except “NCIS.”

But if football is the golden goose, its immense value is threatened by a growing perception that the gridiron too closely resembles the Coliseum and that the players are basically killing each other for our pleasure.  Recent revelations about the impact of concussions and a few well-publicized suicides by former players have started to leave viewers feeling queasy and morally compromised.

And it’s not just fans.  President Obama told The New Yorker that if he had a son he wouldn’t let him play pro football, and both Brett Favre and Bob Costas have said the same thing. More crucially, suburban moms have started to push back.  The number of kids playing Pop Warner football and USA football declined 9.5% and 6.7% respectively between 2010 and 2012.  It might not be long before middle-class parents conclude that letting their sons play football is a form of child neglect.

In the 1950s, boxing held the position that football maintains today, with as many as six prime-time fights and more than 50 million regular viewers a week.  The sport eventually became overexposed, but more important, it got a reputation for corruption and brutality, especially after the prime-time death of the fighter Benny Paret in 1962.  Today boxing is a niche sport, rarely if ever seen on prime time.

Football is more firmly embedded in American culture than boxing ever was. And the fans’ connection to football goes deeper than watching the NFL on Sunday. High school and college football teams are the primary bonding agents for many small towns and university communities, and millions of fans participate in fantasy leagues or play videos games.  The sport is not going away anytime soon.

Having said that, the steady drumbeat of news about concussions has led many viewers to notice how much time is spent each game on injury timeouts, as players stand around and watch one of their recently clobbered teammates being carried off the field.  Just as baseball fans once saw – but didn’t quite comprehend — what was happening to players’ bodies during the steroids era, so too are football fans now beginning to comprehend the consequences of the injuries they have so passively observed for more than 50 years.  Nor does it really help that the dinosaur announcers who call the games, many of them ex-players from a more primitive era, routinely second-guess whether a head-to-head collision that leaves one player dazed and sprawled on the ground should really be called a penalty.

The truth is, with a fan base now sensitized to the dangers of the sport and primed to react on social media, football is far more vulnerable to a high-profile injury than it was even 30 years ago.  Back in 1985 fans were sickened when the New York Giants snapped Joe Theismann’s leg in two, but they didn’t question whether that was the way the sport needed to be.  If a similar injury — or, God forbid, a death — happened on TV today, the impact would be devastating. It would set off a firestorm of debate about what we, as a culture, are requiring of our athletes.

The NFL seems to know this, since they keep fiddling with the rules to reduce the chance of injuries.  But violence is baked into the essence of football, where play ends only when one player is thrown violently to the ground, and it’s only going to get worse as players get bigger and stronger.

The irony is that given the high cost of their NFL contracts, most if not all networks lose money on football.   If football were to go the way of bear-baiting, cock-fighting, and public executions, the networks might actually improve their bottom lines.  But the cost would be shrunken audiences and decreased prestige.   Unfortunately for them, there’s little the networks can do about this situation but hope the inevitable decline of football’s popularity happens on someone else’s watch.

Downton Jack

Last week I boldly proclaimed that “Downton Abbey” had jumped the shark. Very proud of myself for having spoken truth to power, I then Googled “Downton Abbey jumps the shark” to see who else agreed with me and found hundreds of results going back years.  Apparently viewers have been saying that “Downton’s” best days were over since at least January 2012, so I am hardly the first one to this party.

When a show has as many preposterous plotlines as “Downton” (the emergence of a long-lost disfigured amnesiatic Canadian cousin in Season 2 was the first nadir) it’s hard to pinpoint the moment when it actually begins to smell like a rotting fish, but I’m going to maintain that Anna’s rape was a turning point until I’m disproved by events yet foreseen.

I say this because last Sunday’s episode was particularly dull and lifeless.  None of the characteristics we’ve come to love (or more often, love to hate) were in evidence.  Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess was largely silenced – her best line was the rather banal observation, “If we only had moral thoughts, what would the poor churchman do?”  The upper classes – even that idiot Lord Grantham – managed to keep their moronic tendencies in check.   The downstairs skullduggery was also largely absent too, except for the very abrupt conclusion to the burgeoning Edna/Tom blackmail plot.

Instead of the good stuff, what we got a lot of lame recycled plots from previous seasons.  Are we supposed to be surprised when Rose dances with an inappropriate man in a jazz club and needs to be recalled to the table?  Well, it happened last year.  Or how about Mary being such a fox that affianced men keep trying to marry her?  That’s the Lavinia/Matthew plot all over again.  And here we go with another edition of:  “The sainted Anna/Bates relationship is under threat because one party maintains a secret about which he/she feels guilty even though no sane person would judge him/her to be so.”

There was one storyline that I found satisfying, although typically Downtownian in its lack of logic.  Last week’s episode ended with Edna the conniving lady’s maid, slipping into Tom’s bedroom after she had plied him with drink and stoked his feelings of insecurity.  To the surprise of no one, she now emerges as a sexual predator, intent on forcing Tom to marry her if she turns out to be pregnant.  Tom is taken aback by Edna’s claim that she might be knocked up a mere 12 hours after they did the deed, and does what everyone at Downtown should do when they’re in trouble: he goes running to Mrs. Hughes.

Now, PBS launched a new episode of “Sherlock” last night immediately after “Downton,” but that seems superfluous when we’ve got Mrs. Hughes.    She summons Edna and confronts her with the incriminating evidence of her plot.  We’ve seen that Mrs. Hughes has no scruples about rooting around in other people’s wastebaskets and clothes drawers, and this case is no different for she unveils proof that Edna is not pregnant.  Why, here’s a sex manual, “Married Love” by Marie Stropes, an early advocate of birth control (it’s still for sale on Amazon if you’re interested).  J’Accuse!!  With her Sherlockian logic, Mrs. Hughes deduces that Edna practiced birth control to ensure she didn’t get pregnant with Tom, but if she secured his promise to marry her if/when she was in a family way, intended to go out and actually get herself with child by another man.  Whew, what a convoluted scheme, and it has more that a few holes.  In any event, it doesn’t seem like Edna read the sex book very carefully, because when Mrs. Hughes threatens to lock her in the room and bring in a doctor to prove she isn’t pregnant now, she folds, apparently not knowing that you couldn’t prove or disprove a pregnancy so soon.

So exeunt Edna, immediately packing her suitcase and escaping as stealthily as O’Brien in episode one, but not before one last delicious confrontation with Thomas Barrow.  She seems to have forgotten that Thomas got her off the hook with Lady Crawley two episodes ago when she ruined a garment and he managed to shift the blame to Anna.  At that time they had seemed to be the new Axis of Evil, but in the Downtown world there are no permanent allies, only permanent interests, and in a parting scene they unload on each other like two vipers in a bottle:  “Do you ever wonder why people dislike you? It’s because you’re sly, oily and smug,” she says.  “If we’re playing the truth game, then you’re a manipulative little witch, and if your schemes have come to nothing, I’m delighted,” he counters.   Snap!

As satisfying as this Edna resolution is, it illustrates a persistent problem with “Downtown Abbey.” The story lines are either resolved unnaturally quickly or they drag on too long.  After all, we were just re-introduced to Edna and only beginning to settling in to her evil machinations and now – poof – she’s gone.

There’s a similar problem with Lord Gillingham’s courtship of Lady Mary.  Consider the timeline of the past two episodes.  Last week’s episode began Friday, when the guests arrived for the house party.  Gillingham meets Mary that night.  The next day, Saturday, they go for a ride and make eyes at each other.  Last night’s episode begins Monday morning when the house party is over and the partiers are saying their goodbyes.  Then Mary and Gillignham hook up again on Wednesday in London; he follows her back to Downton on Thursday and proposes; the next day, Friday, she says it’s too soon.  I’ll bloody say it’s too soon!  In less than a week he falls in love with her and proposes and when she says it’s too soon, he’s like, OK, tick tock, I can’t wait for you to get over Matthew so I’m just going to go ahead and  marry the runner-up, Miss Mabel Lane-Fox.   My guess is that Julian Fellowes put this plot on the fast track because he has lots more in store for Gillingham.  Unfortunately, there was no Spanish flu epidemic in the 1920s so he won’t be able to dispatch the (yet-to-be-seen) Mabel as easily as he got rid of Matthew Crawley’s fiancé.

If the Gillingham/Mary plot proceeds at an overly accelerated pace, the downstairs love quadrangle starring James/Ivy/Daisy/Alfred is a crashing bore.  Why is this plotline even lingering from last season?  First of all, who cares if Ivy likes James or Alfred?  Second, why is it taking Alfred so long to figure out the score? Talk about dense!  I’m not bothering to recap else about this story because it’s taking up way too much time.  I appreciate that Julian Fellowes wants to give the servants an inner life equal to the lives of the upstairs folks but he no feel for it.  Try harder.

Now to the plot that made me so mad last week: Anna’s rape.  I continue to maintain that it was a brutal scene completely inappropriate for a show that is largely about escapism.  I don’t deny that women were raped at aristocratic houses in the 1920s, and I do recognize that “Downton” has had its share of tragic events, including the deaths of Sybil and Matthew.  But death on a soap opera can be a cathartic event.  We all feel sad that someone died, we may even shed a tear, but we don’t feel depressed about the human condition.  Depictions of rape, child abuse, torture and other kinds of violence belong on a different kind of show – a grown-up show where reality prevails.  Besides, except for the deaths, there’s always a happy ending on “Downton,” and I’d bet anything that this storyline also ends “happily.” (I could go on Wikipedia and actually find out but I don’t want to deliberately expose myself spoilers.)

In any event, as could be seen coming a mile away, the rape is distancing Anna from Bates.  She doesn’t even want him to touch her and then decides to move out of their love nest and back into the main house.  Here’s her logic:  he’s a perfect human being except for this one little thing about him being so violent that if he knew the truth he would proceed to kill the rapist and get himself executed; at the same time, she explains, “I’m not good enough for him. I feel dirty. I’m soiled.” Victims, of course, frequently blame themselves, but Anna seems to be overdoing it.  If she said, I feel guilty because I didn’t listen to my husband and accidentally led this man on, those feelings would be more believable, although equally unfair to herself.  But by saying, “I’m not good enough for him,” she takes a high road that seems designed for plot purposes more than anything else. Anna and Bates have always been too noble for this world, even if that nobility and their own moral calculations bring unnecessary pain to others.

Bates doesn’t seem to be particularly fast on the draw, it must be said.  One minute, the two of them are sitting contently listening to Nellie Melba, and then 45 minutes later he finds her downstairs with her face battered, wearing a new dress and suddenly cold to him and he doesn’t wonder what happened during those 45 minutes?  Instead he thinks he did something wrong? (How often do husbands think their wives’ bad moods are all about them? Uh, every time.)  And why isn’t everyone else jumping to the obvious conclusion, which is that Bates is the one who beat her?  Think about it: Everyone can see she’s been beaten and now she’s moving out of their house.  Why shouldn’t everyone think he’s the cause?

Some additional thoughts:

— The plot with Rose and Jack Ross, the black bandleader, is shaping up to be unbelievably obvious and boring.  I’d almost rather have a full episode of Alfred and Daisy than watch this story unfold.  It is interesting to know, though, that Jack Ross is based on a real person, Leslie Hutchinson, who was a popular cabaret singer during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  He was also notoriously involved with Edwina Mountbatten, the uncle of Prince Philip and the last Viceroy of India.  This video of Hutchinson shows that he had a lot more charisma than the fictional Jack Ross.

— Poor Edith, always relegated to an afterthought by “Downton” recappers as well as by her own family.  Her boyfriend Gregson romantically entices her into a sleepover after thoughtfully sending the servants away – but not before getting her to sign some paper that allegedly gives her some kind of power of attorney while he’s off in Germany getting German citizenship.  Of course she never even looks at the paper, so who knows what she’s signed?  Then when she does the walk of shame back to Aunt Rosamund’s house, a sneaky  maid rats her out and she has to endure a lecture on propriety, which is a bit rich coming from Rosamund, who’s probably seen and done a lot worse.    In any event, this storyline is currently the most ridiculous one we’ve got. A card shark magazine editor, with a lunatic wife stashed away someplace, who’s so gaga over Edith that he’ll revoke his British citizenship so he can obtain a German divorce and then marry her.  The whole thing sounds fishy and of course Lord Grantham, dolt that he is, has never bothered to check Gregson out to see if he’s married or what.

— What a wimp Tom has turned into.  He was always weak – remember him escaping from Ireland and leaving the pregnant Sybil behind in the clutches of the Irish authorities?  Not his finest hour.   Now he gets himself in trouble by allowing Edna to climb into his bed and then blackmail him, before finally running off to Mrs. Hughes to solve his problem. And when he’s not letting ladies maids having their way with him, he’s moping around about wearing white tie and needing to chat with duchesses.  Geez, man up, Tom.  Snap out of it.

— Mrs. Hughes is turning into my favorite character.  She’s big-hearted, but not as goody-goody as those Bates’s and not as wooly-headed as that upper-middle-class do-gooder Isobel Crawley.  She’s clear-eyed and practical and she gets stuff done.  And she’s not above using her powers of manipulation for a good cause, even if it involves breaking into someone else’s bedroom.  Consider this: she gives Carson a nice framed photo of his ex-girlfriend. 1) She must have rooted around in his desk to retrieve the unframed photo, 2) She is probably trying to bring the old coot to life so he will realize his true feelings for her.  She’s a master.

— I like Lord Grantham dispensing vaporous marital advice to Bates, like the Dear Abby he was always meant to be.  “The damage cannot be irreparable when a man and a women love each other as much as you two do.”  Pause.  “My goodness! That was strong talk for an Englishman.”  My thoughts exactly.

— The one plot that I am actually interested in – how they are going to resolve the death duties – gets short shrift this week.  Mary and Tom go to London to talk it out with the authorities and next they are headed to York for more discussions.  It looks like they will borrow the money to pay the taxes rather than sell off property and render the estate unsustainable. Well, that got resolved fast!

— Lord Gillingham should thank his stars that Mary declined his impetuous marriage proposal.  He doesn’t seem to realize that every man she sleeps with comes to a sudden violent end.  Of course it’s unlikely that she will marry him anyway because that would require her to move away from Downton Abbey, which would upset the balance of the show.

Final word goes to Mr. Carson, who truly is becoming the leading existentialist on the show:  “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end that’s all there is.”


(NYT Puzzle Editor Will Shortz)

I can’t stand it when someone grandiosely declares that a movie “changed my life”  because it usually just means that a film had an emotional impact – like, maybe the viewer developed a fear of computers after “2001: A Space Odyssey”.  Big deal.

But there is one movie that literally changed the daily routine of my life.  When my wife and I went to seeWordplay, a documentary about a crossword puzzle tournament, neither of us had ever attempted, much less completed, a New York Times crossword.  But with the movie so entertaining we decided to give it a shot and now we find ourselves doing the puzzle four or five times a week.  In fact, I think it’s possible that we talk about the puzzle more than we talk about our son when he’s off at college (sorry buddy!)

How we love to complain when the Monday puzzles are too easy (“The XXXX Ness Monster? An insult!!”).  And how we love to grouse about the dirty tricks that puzzle editor Will Shortz pulls on Thursdays (“You have to shift all the answers in that column up by one square?  What a sadist!!”)  It’s gotten to the point where “did you finish the puzzle?” has replaced “how did you sleep last night” as the default marital question of the day.

Let me make it clear that doing crossword puzzles doesn’t automatically make you eligible for Mensa.  It doesn’t take long to discover there are hundreds of easy standard answers rotated from puzzle to puzzle.  Among three-letter clues, a hockey player is always ORR, a baseball player is always OTT, and an actor named Stephen is always REA.  Once you master these basics anyone who only marginally payed attention in college can complete the easier puzzles.

Yet there is a darker side to this crossword fixation. One of the other things I can’t stand is when people say they’re “addicted” to something, meaning they enjoy it a lot, like chocolate or Agatha Christie novels. And yet, while it’s probably an exaggeration to say I’m addicted to crossword puzzles, I am definitely experiencing mild addictive tendencies. And I’m not just saying that.  Buzzfeed did a funny post listing 21 signs you’re addicted to crossword puzzles and I suffer from 16 of them.

An addiction is defined as “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is physiologically or physically habit forming, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.”  OK, so that’s not precisely what I have, but I do feel a little jittery if there’s a NYT crossword puzzle in the house that I haven’t worked on.  I sometimes find myself working on the puzzle for hours even when I should be doing real (i.e., compensated) work.  I also dream about crossword puzzles.  This is no joke.  As I am drifting off to sleep, I literally dream about unfinished puzzles, in a way that I’ve never dreamed about martinis, slot machines, or any of the other established addictions.

The causes of addiction are not fully understood but they are believed to be linked to the brain chemical dopamine, which facilitates the sense of pleasure.  Answering complex questions apparently triggers a release of dopamine in the same way that a gambler gets a pleasure jolt from winning a bet.  And a good crossword puzzle is all about answering complex questions.

Here’s the interesting thing about the pleasures of crossword puzzles.  I get zero satisfaction out of answering the easy clues.  In fact, the two most enervating minutes of the day are when I am skimming through the puzzle filling in the generic answers.  It isn’t until I get to the tricky questions that the pleasure starts to kick in.

And the REAL serotonin buzz starts when I’ve been stymied on an answer for 10-15 minutes and then, suddenly, the scales literally fall from my eyes.  Sometime it seems like actual magic.  More often that not, if I can’t get any more answers and walk away for a while, when I come back, it’s – Bang! – one answer after another.  It’s like the brain circuitry gets tangled one way and then somehow straightens itself out when it’s at rest.  My favorite clues play into that – like when a word that seems to be an adjective or adverb turns out to be a noun or verb.  Take this clue: five letters for “revolting sort.”  It turns out that “revolting” isn’t an adjective, as in sickening.  It’s actually a verb and the answer is “REBEL.”  Aha!

I get another blast of satisfaction when my mind magically comes up with a factoid I didn’t know I knew.  Example: six letters for “like the women in a famous Rubens painting.” No idea, until the first letter established itself as an “S” and suddenly I guessed SABINE, as in “The Rape of the Sabine Women.”  I don’t recall ever seeing the painting or knowing anything about it, but someone this fact was lodged way way back in the most distant ganglia of my brain and the crossword puzzle dislodged it.  Amazing. I feel almost giddy and gay.

I would feel better about myself if I could solve the harder puzzles.  The Monday NYT puzzles are the easiest and the week gets progressively harder until Saturday.  I can usually finish Thursday by cheating on a word or two, and I sometimes can do Friday but never Saturday (Sunday’s larger puzzles I can usually do over the course of a weekend.)  This level of accomplishment is where I’ve been stuck for five years.  And the sad thing is, I probably never will solve a Saturday without checking out Rex Parker’s blog site because I’m not proficient enough in the following categories: the moons of Saturn, Spanish phrases (other than “Ole!”), European rivers (other than the “Arno”), Verdi operas, elements with atomic weights over 100, one-hit wonder songs from the early 1970s, minor Grecian goddesses.  I will admit that I have occasionally googled an answer toward the end of the week, but I make excuses for myself (just like an addict!) that no sane person could be expected to know all that.

One last point on that movie “Wordplay.”  It really is terrific even if you don’t like crossword puzzles or documentaries.  But be forewarned.  It’s a gateway drug to a lifetime of noticing that “TIARA” has a lot of vowels and that a five letter word for “Hollywood’s Davis” is more apt to be GEENA than BETTE.


I don’t want to make this all about me, but last night’s “Downton Abbey” wrecked my Sunday.  With so much to watch on TV, I was looking forward to starting with the Golden Globes, switching to “Downton” at 9 and then either switching back to the Golden Globes or “Girls” at 10.  But “Downton” was so profoundly disturbing that it was all I could do to keep from throwing up at the end and I certainly wasn’t in the mood for the frivolous Globes or the narcissist “Girls.”

If you haven’t seen the episode yet you might want to stop reading here because of the major forthcoming spoilers, but what Julian Fellowes did in this episode was an assault on the viewers, who had become accommodated to a certain kind of escapist entertainment and were then thrust suddenly and without warning into a melodrama.

I understand that in a soap opera like “Downton Abbey,” the screenwriter constantly needs to invent new plots, and there’s no question that the Anna/Bates characters had become dull and predictable.  But the way to address that is not to contrive a brutal rape on the saintly Anna.  To make something like that work you need a better storyteller than Julian Fellowes.  This was just brutality for its own sake.

Worse, there are some intimations that Anna and modernity itself are partly to blame for what happened.  After all, if Anna had only listened to Bates and not accepted the visiting valet’s flirtations she might not have led him on.  And the downstairs quarters where the assault occurred would not have been empty if the Granthams, over Carson’s objections that certain of the staff should not appear upstairs, had not allowed all the servants to attend the recital that was going on during the rape.

Anna’s reaction to the assault has an unsatisfactory soap opera logic to it too.  She wants to hide the rape because she fears Bates will kill the assailant and then end up swinging from the gallows, which he narrowly escaped once.  This kind of noble self-sacrifice, which she and Bates have gotten down to a science, is clearly designed for plot purposes; she recoils from her husband’s touch when he inquires why she’s been beaten to a pulp, and we can only presume that it will take several episodes for them to work out their forthcoming marital coldness before the valet’s crimes are exposed and punished.

But whether we’ll still care by the time the valet gets his just desserts is an open question, because I’m not sure I even want to watch any more.  The show has always been a silly bit of fluff, with absurd plots, gorgeous set design and funny one-liners from Maggie Smith.  There are those who love the show and others (myself included) who watch with morbid fascination to see how bad the wealthy can behave, in the same way that others watch “The Real Housewives.”  But I fear that the viciousness of the rape and the obtuse way in which the aftermath is handled, might be the moment at which “Downton” jumps the shark and spirals into more and more outlandish plots.

Loosely connected to Anna’s fate is a different sort of sexual assault – the attempt by the lady’s maid Edna to seduce Tom.  Tom’s “woe is me” storyline is becoming tiresome; he had seemed to be fitting into the family after assuming estate management responsibilities but the house party, where he is required to wear white tie and chat with a Duchess, revives his old class insecurities.  Whatever.  That’s so Season 2.  The scheming Edna, who got fired last season for making a pass at him when she was a mere maid and somehow obtained a better job this year, still has her eye out for the main chance and she seeks to take advantage of Tom’s vulnerabilities.   In the world of “Downton Abbey,” where the good characters never do anything cruel and exploitative and the bad characters never do anything but, Tom has resisted any forays into inappropriate female accompaniment, even though as a young strapping Irish lad he must have his male urges.  He’s either still in mourning for Sybil or has the natural nobility of the upper-lower-middle class, but none of the local lasses can get him to crack.

But Edna picks her spot and plies him with Irish whiskey just as he’s feeling most insecure and in the closing scenes we see her slipping into his bedroom.  Is he awake, asleep or too drunk to perform?  Clearly this is not rape in the same way that Anna was attacked, but it’s a kind of emotional rape.  How likely is it that Edna won’t exploit this for her own nefarious means?  Because even if he is asleep in a drunken stupor, you can bet she’ll claim they did the deed and make him act honorably about it.

That also is a plot to which I do not look forward.

Some other thoughts:

—  Twelve years ago, Julian Fellowes won an Academy Award for Gosford Park, a Maggie Smith movie about a house party at an English country estate.  Last night’s episode hearkens back to that firm, centering as it does around a weekend house party at Downtown.  The visiting servants, for example, are called by their master’s names, so that the valet, whose real name is Green is called Mr. Gillingham, after his master Lord Gillingham (a potential suitor for Mary, meaning that if she goes to visit him, and Anna accompanies her, Anna will be confronted again by her rapist.)

—  Apparently there was a real opera singer named Nellie Melba (see here for more on the real Dame).  I didn’t recognize Kiri Te Kanawa, as the singer, probably because she appeared to be dolled up to look like Carol Burnett’s version of Norma Desmond from “Sunset Boulevard.”

—  Julian Fellowes apparently believes in the Rule of Three when it comes to screenwriting because every character has to articulate what he or she is feeling at least three times, just so that no viewer misses the point.  I sometimes think this explains the popularity of the show.  Unlike “Mad Men,” where you have to infer or intuit a character’s emotion, “Downton Abbey” lays it right out there; you don’t even have to connect the dots.  Hence, from their own mouths we hear multiple times about:  Tom’s insecurities; Carson’s difficulties adapting to post-War customs; Molesly’s feelings of failure; Gregson’s concern that Lord Grantham is trying to avoid him; Mary’s feeling that she’s not as good a person she was when married to Matthew; Isobel Crawley’s feelings of emptiness after her son’s death.  Taken together, all these spoon-fed declarations make “Downton” a high-toned version of “Television for Dummies.”

—  Lord Grantham continues to be a blithering idiot, smugly brushing off warnings against playing poker with a card sharp (“I think I can look after myself”), insulting his dinner guest, the singer Dame Nellie, until she manages to identify his claret by taste; insisting on selling revenue-generating land to pay the death duties; avoiding his daughter’s boyfriend until he wins back the Lord’s IOUs.

— This is an episode in which one servant gets raped and another servant is in agony because he has to wear a footman’s gloves. No wonder we have emotional whiplash.  Mosely has always been one of the few interesting characters on the show, a mediocrity with aspirations and ambitions, someone who has bought whole-heartedly into the social system even though it’s not working for him.  I’ve often wondered if his character’s name was supposed to evoke the British fascist Oswald Mosley, who led a popular Black Shirted party in the 1930s.  Our Mr. Mosely is precisely the kind of supporter that the real Mosley had and it’s hard to imagine their names are so similar by coincidence.  In any event, I’m not sure what we are supposed to make of our Mr. Mosely.  Fellowes usually portrays him as a self-deluded fool, like Charlie Brown would be if he was a servant.  Personally, I always feel a little squeamish looking down on Mosely; after all, even he wants to be the star of his own life.

— And speaking of stars, not much has been made recently of Cora Crawley’s American birth, but her excitement at seeing the famous opera singer does display some typical America characteristics.  Yes, she insists on having the singer to dinner on near-equal terms, but is this a latent democratic tendency?  I don’t think so, since she can be as snooty as an English-born peer. No, what’s particularly American about her reaction to the famous soprano is her star-chasing tendencies.  Nellie is FAMOUS — a celebrity — so of course Cora wants her not only in the house but at her table. I think we can agree that not much has changed in 100 years.


So here we are again, back with the fine folks of Downtown Abbey, where the governing principle seems to be that every time a baby is born a parent dies.    Season 4 finds us in 1922, six months after the heir, Matthew Crawley, went to the big castle in the sky, not for plot development reasons but because his portrayer  – the once-non-threateningly-handsome actor Dan Stevens – decided he wanted to lose 30 pounds, spike his hair and star on Broadway.

In the opening minutes we find that yet another character, the odious lady’s maid Mrs. O’Brien, has flown the coop, leaving poor Lady Grantham without anyone to dress her!  And in the various plots that unfurl from there it becomes apparent that no one at Downton Abbey has learned a thing in the intervening six months.  Consider the following: after all these years Lady Grantham has still not figured out which of her servants are honest and which ones are schemers; Lord Grantham still doesn’t know that he’s too incompetent to left in charge of the assorted windfalls that have undeservedly landed in his lap; Mr. Carson hasn’t learned that if you throw a letter into the trash rather than burning it one of the other busybody servants will read it; and screenwriter Julian Fellowes hasn’t learned which storylines bore us.

After the high-stakes melodrama of Season 3, Sunday’s two-hour intro to Season 4 was a bit dull.  One plot revolved around which of the servants sent valentines to the others!  Another concerned which servant would be blamed for ruining one of Lady Grantham’s garments.  Yet another centered on whether Mr. Carson would reconcile with his old vaudeville buddy Charlie Grigg.  Game of Thrones this ain’t.

The overriding plotline of the episode involved the question of who would control the Downton estate now that Matthew is six feet under.  You will recall that Lord Grantham had squandered his wife’s fortune through mismanagement and bad investments but that Matthew had inherited scads and scads of money from his Spanish Flu-dispatched fiancé and was then cajoled into sharing the management of Downton with his Lordship.  And that somewhere along the line he decided to give Lord Grantham HALF of his fortune so the old guy didn’t feel emasculated or whatever.  In any event, with Matthew out of the picture, the estate is divided like this: Lord Grantham has half, baby George has a third, and Lady Mary, the bereaved widow, has a sixth.

Or is it?  Because, what do you know?  Out of the blue they discover a letter from Matthew (who never made a will, despite being an attorney and despite having a huge fortune) stating that he wanted his wife Mary to be his heiress.    Now this is one of the things that irks me about “Downtown Abbey”: no, not just the long-lost letter from a dead person that arrives in the nick of time to solve a conundrum (a device already employed last season when Matthew got a similar letter from the dead fiancé.) No, what actually bugs me is that this climatic resolution isn’t even necessary.  We had already established in the opening sequence that Mary, if she so chose, could manage her son’s interests, so if you want to give Mary co-management responsibilities, it doesn’t matter whether she, or her son, is the actual owner.  In fact, it seems to make more sense for the baby to be the owner for estate planning purposes.

The issue of who controls the management of the Downton estate is important because Lord Grantham has already shown himself to be inept in almost everything he does.  In fact, I’d rather have Daisy the kitchen maid managing my 401k than his Lordship.  And of course we all remember how incompetent he was in his choice of doctors.  But it’s clear he’s more than an amiable dunce; he’s actually a bit of a dick. He spends the whole episode warning everyone not to bother poor Mary with any details of real life, apparently because he wants to regain full control of Downtown Abbey, not out of concern for her mental health.  Because as soon as she indicates an interest in co-managing the estate he turns on her with an alarming ferocity, pelting her with sarcastic questions about “cereals” and “grains” that she obviously can’t answer.

And to complete his reign of error, his Lordship lets himself get taken in again by the evil manservant Thomas Barrow, who should have been fired years ago for his various villainies against his co-workers.  Why Lord Grantham, at this stage in the series, should take the word of Barrow against Mr. Bates is beyond me, other than the fact that Julian Fellowes only has about ten plot ideas and needs to keep recycling them.

In fact, it’s obvious at this stage that everyone has settled into a specific, immutable archetype, with little capacity to surprise.  Lord Grantham, is a blithering idiot and his wife isn’t much better, falling first for O’Brien’s shenanigans and now for the new lady’s maid Edna’s tricks.  In addition to the aristocratic imbeciles at the top of the food chain we have three outright saints: Mr. Bates, Anna and Mrs. Hughes, who are always putting others first.  Then there are the horny young servants, the sensible but tough-love-giving older servants, and of course the outright villains (Thomas, and now Edna).  There’s also the middle class do-gooder Isobel Crawley and the working class hero Tom Branson.

There are really only two interesting, complex characters: Lady Mary and the Dowager Countess.  It’s no coincidence that they are played by the two best actors on the show, Michelle Dockery and Maggie Smith.  When we were first introduced to the Dowager Countess in Season 1, she was a snobby, out-of-touch dragon lady, but over the years she’s become almost cuddly, dispensing wisdom in hilarious bon mots and acting the benefactor in numerous surprising ways (including her efforts to get Mr. Mosely a job.)

Lady Mary started the series as prickly and slightly nasty but clear-sighted, and she remains the one character on the show allowed to swing back and forth between gradations of good and bad, between selfish and gracious.  Of course not even Michelle Dockery can overcome the lame lines she’s given in the first half of the episode.   Several times I laughed out loud at her mournful, dirge-like pronouncements (e.g., “poor little orphan,” when addressing her son, who is neither poor nor an orphan) because they are as lugubrious as Bela Lugosi.  In the end, though, she decides to “choose life,” but only after crying on Mr. Carson’s shoulder in the only truly affecting moment of the episode.  Oh well, now that she’s back in the land of the living, I guess that means more man-hunting in future episodes.  Matthew may come to regret that he didn’t leave the estate to little George after all, if it turns out that Mary gets involved with a fortune-hunter.

Some other thoughts:

The saving grace of “Downton Abbey” is usually the sly humor, but this was a particularly dour show (except for the unintentional humor of Lady Mary’s funereal pronouncements).  The Dowager Countess did get off one good zinger when Lord Grantham was pouting about Lady Mary becoming a co-manager: ““When you talk like that I’m tempted to ring for nanny and have you put to bed with no supper.”

Speaking of nannies, there’s a saying that even a blind pig can find an acorn once in a while, and it’s also true that even Thomas Barrow will occasionally, if accidentally, focus his malevolence on a worthy target.  With no proof whatsoever, he disparaged the new nanny to Mrs. Crawley out of personal pique, but then it transpired that he was right – the old bat turned out to be as obsessed with blood purity as Harry Potter’s nemesis Draco Malfoy, who all but calls poor little Sybil – the offspring of a Lady and a chauffeur – a mudblood.

Also speaking of nannies, who’s in charge of hiring at this place?   They need a better HR process.  First they get this crazy nanny and then they hire a new lady’s maid Edna Braithwaite (great name, btw) who’s even worse than the little-lamented O’Brien.

There should be a drinking game called “eavesdropping,” in which everyone takes a drink when the plot turns on someone secretly listening in to someone else’s conversation.  How fortunate that Lady Grantham was listening at the door when Nanny West was spewing her classist comments at poor defenseless Sybil.

Hard as we might try, it’s hard to take Edith’s story-line seriously.  Somehow she has managed to captivate a successful magazine editor, who’s married (to a “lunatic” we’re told, shades of Jane Eyre).  He is so bedazzled by her that he’s willing to become a German citizen in order to get a divorce so he can marry her.  This scheme would seem crazy even if we didn’t know what’s going to happen in Germany during the 1920’s.  Good luck, Fraulein Edith.

— One thing that does seem accurate about this episode is the anxiety about status and security in the post-War era.  The 1920’s were certainly a time of great unrest but in Downtown, this manifests itself in the arrival of an electric mixer!  In real life, workers were going on strike, millions were mourning the war dead, yet the biggest change at the Abbey is the use of a mechanical beater, which Mrs. Patmore thinks will eliminate jobs.  God forbid someone suggests a dishwasher.

And what an existentialist Carson has turned into: “But what does it matter anyway? We shout and scream and wail and cry, but in the end we must all die.”  Call Albert Camus!