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Monthly Archives: January 2015

THE DICK CAVETT SHOW

 

Dick Cavett is having a bit of a mini-renaissance.  I look in the New York Times Book Review and there’s a Q/A with him about books.  I go to the bookstore and there’s his new collection of essays, Brief Encounters.” I browse the New York Times website and there’s a Dick Cavett op-ed.

If you were born after 1965 and came across any of these offerings you might wonder what the big deal is.  Why would anyone care about this old guy, whose writing is so infused with self-depreciation and overly dry jokiness?  But if you were born earlier you might smile and think back to the days when a late night talk show could be a cultural phenomenon.

Maybe I’m over-thinking this because I came of age just as Cavett got his late-night talk show on ABC and watching that show as a teenager helped expand my horizons — like a good teacher or sophisticated aunt might have done for someone else.  When Katharine Hepburn famously appeared on the show, I’d never even HEARD of her.  Nor had I heard of Orson Welles, Dizzy Gillespie or John Simon until they were introduced to me by Cavett.

In the 1960s, late night was dominated by The Tonight Show, hosted by Jack Parr and then Johnny Carson.  Cavett had been a writer for both Parr and Carson and ABC, always trying to figure out what to do in that time slot, rolled the dice and gave Cavett a shot.  For network television this was an unusual choice.  Cavett was Yale-educated and didn’t try to hide it.  His intellectual pretensions and erudition would have been annoying without his quick wit and legitimate love of the old time performers who were only too happy to appear on his show and bask in his adoration.

The primetime version of “The Dick Cavett Show” premiered in May 1969 and moved to late night that December, right as the culture wars of the Sixties were reaching their climax.  If you watched “The Tonight Show,” you’d never guess that revolution was in the air but the Sixties were fought out on the set of “The Dick Cavett Show.”

Cavett himself was as square as they came, but he had his pulse on the zeitgeist. The day after Woodstock ended, his show featured appearances by Joni Mitchell, The Jefferson Airplane and David Crosby and Stephen Stills who all performed and discussed the festival.

Many of his guests were controversial, including members of  the “Chicago Seven” (including Abbey Hoffman and Jerry Rubin), who were charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.  I also remember the night I heard on the car radio that Georgia’s racist governor Lester Maddox had walked out of a taping, after which I raced home to see it air later that night.  Can you imagine any talk show today being controversial enough to have its highlights reported in the news before it even aired?

Then there’s the night that Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and The New Yorker’s Janet Flanner had a huge catfight on the show and Mailer in his frustration snottily told Cavett, “Why don’t you look at your question sheet and ask your question?” Cavett’s  response was legendary: “Why don’t you fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine?” But as quick-witted as that was, the follow-up was even funnier. Trying to regain the momentum Mailer asked: “Mr. Cavett, on your word of honor, did you just make that up, or have you had it canned for years, and you were waiting for the best moment to use it?” To which Cavett replied:  “I have to tell you a quote from Tolstoy?”

The “Dick Cavett Show” only lasted on ABC through 1975, when it succumbed to so-so ratings and corporate fear of controversy, although it was revived later on PBS, USA and CNBC to much less acclaim.  Watching the old shows now, we are struck not just by the adult approach to talk, but by the fact that guests came on simply to talk, not just to promote projects.  The sad truth today is that too many guests are booked only when they have a new movie, TV show, book or line of clothing coming out.

Jimmy Fallon has succeeded to a certain extent in breaking the stranglehold of publicists who insist on booking guests solely for promotional purposes and some of his guests appear just because they want to be on.  But still, it’s hard to imagine Fallon conducting a serious interview with the contemporary equivalent of Tennessee Williams or Bruno Bettelheim.

What we need today is a contemporary version of Dick Cavett, a wit whose interests span entertainment, politics, music and literature.  We need a show where you can be introduced to new talent, relive the exploits of old masters, and watch a couple of literary rivals mix it up.

That’s why I’ve got my fingers crossed for the debut of the new Steven Colbert show later this year.  Even on the rigidly formatted “Colbert Report,” Colbert was able to rekindle a little of the Cavett magic, with imaginative guests and serious writers.  I hope he’ll cede the silly, albeit good-natured shtick to Fallon and try for a slightly more cerebral show.

mary and tony

I never thought I would say this but “Downton Abbey” this season has somehow hit its stride as a not-completely-ridiculous costume drama.  I haven’t done the actual calculation yet, but I think the percentage of interesting plotlines has finally surpassed the percentage of out-of-this-world-stupid ones.

I don’t know if it’s a happy accident or intentional, but Julian Fellowes has stumbled upon an interesting theme in his examination of revolution.  In the aftermath of the cataclysmic World War and the introduction of new technologies, the 1920s were a period of ferment, almost as much as the 1960s.  Even Lady Edith is writing a magazine column on the topic of changing times (when she’s not stalking little Marigold, that is.)  All season long we’ve seen how the times are a changing and in this episode we deal with two kinds of revolution – the political and the personal.

The political revolution is laid right out there in the opening scenes.  The Dowager Countess and Isobel take a field trip to see Rose’s Soup-Kitchen-For-Czarists community service project, ostensibly to see how Rose is doing but really to check out Prince Thingamajig (as Lord Grantham calls his mother’s admirer.)   These refugees from the Russian Revolution used to be even richer than the Granthams but now they are poorer than the Downton tenant farmers.  “I never thought it would be like this,” the Dowager Countess shivers, no doubt wondering at her own fate if the little folks of Downton arose.

Thankfully for her, it’s not the Drewes of the world who are revolting, it’s the Downton equivalent of the chattering classes, in the person of the Bitchiest Bolshevik, Miss Sarah Bunting, who is very revolting indeed.  It is completely inexplicable to me why she keeps getting invited to Crawley dinner parties.  She has proven to be an ungracious guest on more than one occasion (extolling the virtues of Trotsky to traumatized Russian refugees, as she did last week, shows that she’s not exactly adept at reading a room.)  In real life, she would never be invited back even if Tom does need a “friend,” but on “Downton” someone is either too dim (Cousin Rose) to understand the consequences, or too much of a trouble-maker (Isobel) to care.

Julian Fellowes is a Conservative Peer when he’s not writing soap operas, and he certainly stacks the deck against poor Miss Bunting because she’s the worst kind of revolutionary.  She doesn’t see people as flesh and blood individuals, she sees them as concepts and stereotypes. And since you can’t empathize with a concept, she seems to think that it’s OK to be downright rude and insulting to them.  Consequently, even though Tom implored her not to ruin the dinner because he “loves” the Crawleys, she goes ahead and does it anyway.

I have to say, though, that dinner party was one of the most entertaining events in the entire “Downton” run.  First there was the sight of Cora playing verbal footsy with the art historian, who has nothing better to do than to drop everything and spend several days mooching off the Lord’s hospitality and trying to seduce his wife (more on that later). But the real highlight of the dinner were the fireworks between Miss Bunting and Lord Grantham.

How bad is Miss Bunting?  So bad that she turns his Lordship into a sympathetic figure.  See, she’s been tutoring Daisy in Cartesian Logic, Microbiology, Constitutional Law and Applied Physics and the Lord suggests that she’s been slacking off because she’s been at the books when she should be scrubbing pans.  Miss Bunting’s got him dead to rights that he doesn’t know the name of the cook who’s been living in his house for 20 years (I’m surprise that Mary knows, to be honest).  But he’s right that Mrs. Patmore has been grumbling that she’s not carrying her weight – we saw her complaining with our own eyes just a few scenes earlier.  But when they summon Mrs. Patmore and Daisy into the dining room and put the screws to them, Mrs. Patmore circles the wagons and say that no, Daisy’s book-learning is not a problem (and what else is she going to say? She’s not going to throw the girl she considers her own daughter under the bus.)

Lord Gratham is gracious enough in losing the argument but Miss Bunting, who probably would have been manning the guillotine during the French Revolution 125 years earlier, won’t let it drop. “He would like us serfs to stay in our allotted place from cradle to grave,’ she declares, which causes his Lordship to blow his stack: “Only one thing I would like,” he erupts in Vesuviusian rage, “and that I would like passionately! It is to see you leave this house and never come back!”  Like the Patriots fan who’s been told too many times by his snotty New York son-in-law that Tom Brady is a cheater, he flings down his napkin and storms off to his room for a good pout.  “Happy now?” Mary brightly asks Sarah, who, for some reason continues to sit at the table.

And this is the thing, Sarah doesn’t understand that Lord Grantham is not her enemy – it’s really Mary.  Who at “Downton” wants a revolution?  Not the servants.  Not the tenant farmers.  Grantham might be paternalistic (and a blithering idiot) but he’s no more paternalistic than the coming welfare state that really will subsidize people from cradle to grave while also robbing them of their dignity.  He’s shown on multiple occasions that he views Downton as a semi-socialist economy, with his role as the benevolent provider of largesse for the community as a whole.  On the other hand it’s Mary who wants to kick the farmers off the land if they fall behind in their rent, and it’s Mary who wants to sell off the meadow to a tacky real estate developer.  Mary’s the one who’s embracing the free market principles that are causing social turmoil in the rest of the economy.  To the extent that there was a threat of a British revolution in the 1920s it came from the mines and factories – the industrial sector – not from the landed classes, and I have no doubt that Mary would have been happy to grow into Margaret Thatcher and close down inefficient coal mines.

Sarah’s use of the word “serfs” and the presence of those exiled Russian aristocrats gives us a reason to contemplate the difference between Russia and Britain.  Because, as unpalatable as we may find British society 90 years ago, it was a paradise compared to Russia.  Before the Russian Revolution of 1918, Russia was an absolute monarchy, ruled by a Czar with little if any democratic input.  There was a small and immensely rich ruling class presiding over a huge agricultural economy of former serfs.  There was hardly any middle class and a pitiful industrial sector.  By contrast, the UK was governed by Parliament, which generally (although not perfectly) reflected the will of the people.  The monarch was primarily a figurehead and there was a robust commercial economy based on innovation, property rights and the rule of law.  So it’s not surprising that Russia had a violent revolution and that Britain didn’t.  And of course after the revolution, things got even worse in Russia.  The escaped aristocrats are the lucky ones. The country suffered through a five-year civil war and when it was over Stalin was in charge and anyone who stood in his way (including entire classes of people) was murdered.  This is the regime that Sarah Bunting prefers.

The political revolution is not the only one on the agenda of this week’s “Downton” however.  There’s also the social revolution, especially in the area of marriage.  All of a sudden, after years of linking marriage and duty, everyone wants to base marriage on love.   How revolutionary.   Consider:

— Lord Merton shows up on Isobel’s doorstep and passionately declares his love for her, admitting he hadn’t loved his former wife and wants his next marriage to be based on love.  Isobel is so taken aback by the ardency of his love claims that she says she’ll think about it.

— Mary has decided that she doesn’t really love Tony Gillingham after all.  Sure, he’s fine in the sack but she doesn’t think they have much in common.  Mary didn’t worry before whether she had anything in common with her first fiancé, her cousin Patrick Crawley (who may or may have not perished with the Titanic) but after having been in love with Matthew Crawley, she doesn’t want to settle this time around.  Naturally Gillingham is incensed, felling seduced and abandoned.  He basically says, you sleep with a man and then don’t marry him?  What kind of a slut are you?  He continues to be in a state of denial, claiming “We’ll get through this together.”

— Despite not having a bean, Shrimpie is divorcing his wife, who is so shrewish that the Crawleys continue to favor him even though she’s their blood cousin.  When Shrimpy tells Rose the news, she uses it to extract a pledge that she’ll be able to marry whoever she wants and won’t be forced into a suitable marriage like he was.

— There are hints that Cora is regretting not making a love match for herself.  In the early episodes of the series back in Season One, we were told what great lovebirds they were – why, unlike most lords and ladies of the time, they shared the same bed!  But now things have gone a little stale and Lord Grantham once again ignores her when she asks about the fate of the property at Pip’s Corner.  Now, we are asked to believed that Cora might run away with the art historian who is flirting so outrageously and asking her opinion about EVERYTHING!

— Then there’s the spectacle of the Dowager Countess, who had the chance to abscond with the Russian Prince Thingamajig fifty years ago but decided to stay with her husband after he presented her with a Faberge frame with photos of their two children – evidence that he did have some kind of heart after all.  Of course if the Dowager Countess had been a reader, she would have known from “Anna Karenina” that leaving your kids to run away with a Russian prince can only lead to an untimely end at the railway station.  In any event, the Dowager Countess’ decision not to elope in a passion happened 50 years ago, and I think we are supposed to infer that she might have taken the proposition more seriously in the lusty Roaring Twenties.

Some other points:

One of the topics that Daisy is studying with Miss Bunting is History, especially The Glorious Revolution the 1688.   If Miss Bunting were any kind of historian she would have recognized that this was a peculiarly English kind of revolution.   In fact, it wasn’t really a revolution at all – more like a bloodless coup, in which the James II, an aggressive Catholic, was forced to flee to the continent after the powers-that-be threw their support to his Protestant daughter and her Dutch husband, William of Orange.  In addition to lending their names to a very nice college in Virginia, William and Mary restored the power of the Protestant nobles, proving again that the British don’t need a bloody revolution to advance political pluralism.

william-mary-1689

 William and Mary, the beneficiaries of the Glorious Revoution

Instead of my weekly rant about how sadistic Julian Fellowes is to poor Edith, and what a bad idea it was to place her daughter with a neighboring pig man, I’ll make the following ancillary points:  1) She’s still writing that column? 2) And whatever happened to that document she signed that put her in charge if Gregson disappeared?  Shouldn’t she be down in London running the show like Katherine Graham ran the Washington Post instead of skulking around pig sties?  3) I don’t want to say I told you so, but I did predict last year that Gregson would be mixed up with those nasty Nazis.  It seems that “there’s a trial going on in Munich of the leader of a group of those thugs.” This particular leader wears a brown shirt.  I wonder who THAT could be? Turns out that Lord Grantham is also a master prognosticator because he observes, “I’m afraid we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing.  We pushed Germany too hard with our demands after the war.”

— It seems increasingly clear that Thomas went down to London in search of a quack cure for his homosexuality, but what is he doing with that stolen spoon and syringe?  The “Choose Your Own Path” ad that he’s been consulting sounds like a proto-Dale Carnegie course, but is obviously something more dangerous.

— So Charles Blake is squiring around Lady Mabel Fox, dumped last year by Tony Gillingham to pursue Mary.  Apparently there are only two eligible ladies in the entire country and every man is after both of them.  Looking ahead, when Mabel finds out that Mary’s about to wrest Charles away after stealing Tony, she’s likely to come after her with a pair of scissors.

— Just who exactly is investigating the murder of Mr. Green: is it Sergeant Willis or Inspector Javert?  Are they really staking out Lord Gillingham’s house 24/7 in the off-chance that the murderer would return to the scene of the crime?  And why is the appearance of the Lord’s fiancée’s lady’s maid in the least bit suspicious?  It looks like they are setting it up so that Anna will be blamed for killing her rapist since she doesn’t have an alibi for the day in question).  No one has any proof that Green was even murdered, yet this Sergeant has all the time in the world to be gallivanting to Yorkshire every other day to ask a few more questions?  “I just wish we could forget all about Mr. Green,” Anna says – as the rest of “Downton Abbey” Nation rises to their feet and cries “Amen”!

— The humiliation of Mr. Molesly continues apace. Carson doesn’t like him because he’s too grasping after his prerogatives (like insisting on being called the First Footman, which would have meant something before the war, but is virtually irrelevant now) so dumps work on him until he cries uncle and relinquishes the title of First Footman.  This is Julian Fellowes the snob piling on poor lower-middle-class Molesly, who is guilty only of being inelegantly conscious of social status.

— As usual, the Dowager Countess gets all the good lines.  I literally laughed out loud, when, after Lord Grantham pitched that gigantic fit and stormed out of dinner, she turned to Edith and sweetly asked how her column writing was going.  Then when she confides to Isobel that she almost ran off with the Russian Prince, Isobel says it was a good thing she found out in time, slyly adding, “If it was in time”.  The Dowager Countess turns vacant and says “I forget.”   Ha! She doesn’t forget a trick yet can’t remember whether she consummated her passion with Thingamajig?  Right.

— It seems like every Sunday night, “Downton” is broadcast against a different awards show with a different red carpet.  I didn’t watch the SAG awards or the red carpet presentations, but I doubt the clothes were as alluring as the ones in the fashion show that Mary attended with her aunt.   At first blush this scene may seem to be just more eye candy for the show’s predominantly female audience but it serves an important plot point in reminding us that London society is going through a massive sea change (those clothes would never have seen the light of day ten years earlier.)

— How big a shrew is Susan, the Crawley cousin and soon-to-be-former-mate of Shrimpie?  As you recall, at the beginning of last season she stole O’Brien, Cora’s lady’s maid, the one who is so adept at deploying infanticidal bars of soap.  Anyone who would willingly associate herself with O’Brien is obviously beyond the pale.

“Am I a bad lover?  Is that it?”  Of course Mary would be able to compare by now.  Can’t wait until she puts Charles Blake through his paces.

bal-rade-sherbedgia-as-kuragin-and-maggie-smith-as-violet-dowager-countess-of-grantham-20150118

If you had told me that the funniest line in Sunday’s “Downton  Abbey” would be “Come and clear the spotted dick”  and that three generations of Crawley women would be involved in extracurricular  shenanigans, I would have expected these events to be connected somehow, but alas, Wikipedia tells us that  “Spotted dick is a cylindrical pudding popular in Britain, containing dried fruit (usually currants or raisins) and commonly served with custard.” So Mrs. Patmore had nothing but culinary delights on her mind when she uttered those immortal words.

But you know who’s not exactly a pudding, cylindrical or otherwise?  Mary Crawley, whose radiant face we see as she awakens between the sheets in that Liverpool love nest, together with the well-toned and body-hairless Tony Gillingham.   She doesn’t seem any the worse for wear after a full-week of coital gymnastics.  The hunky Lord is in a hurry to set a date so they can spend forever and ever together in marital bliss, but as soon as he leaves the room, Mary’s glow recedes.

What can be the problem?  Does he lack the proper equipment?  Maybe poor technique?  Probably not, because she later confides that, “He’s a nice man, a very nice man, but not, I mean, … of course we talked about things.”  I suppose we are to infer that the things they talked about were not as stimulating as the things they did while not talking, and it’s true, they don’t seem to have a lot of chemistry when fully clothed.  Not like Mary and the sharper-edged Charles Blake, who can always get a rise out of her.  And you’ll recall that it was Blake who helpfully planted the seed of doubt last week by suggesting that Gillingham was not as “clever” as she is.  So it appears that the idea of the sexcapade was actually a good experiement, but not for the reasons Mary thought it would be.  She and Tony are presumably sexually compatible, but the prospect  of spending a lot of vertical time with him has apparently lost its allure.

Of course secrets exist on “Downton Abbey” for the sole purpose of being discovered and it was preordained that Mary and Tony would be found out – the only question was by whom.  Well, what do you know, there’s the Dowager Countess’ butler, conveniently in Liverpool for his niece’s wedding.  He can’t wait to blab all this to his employer but she didn’t get to be an Emmy-winning character by being taken by surprise by her servants, so as soon as the poor man spills the beans she makes up an alibi to cover for Mary and Gillingham and accuses him of having a dirty mind.  The next day she chastises Mary for potentially causing another scandal, remarking, “In my day, a lady was incapable of feeling physical attraction until she’d be instructed to do so by her MaMa.”  The Dowager Countess wants Mary to marry Tony as soon as possible, as does Tony, which leads to “Downton’s” annoying habit of beating a subject to death.  Every time Mary’s on screen someone’s asking her the same question, just in case there’s some viewer in Tulsa Oklahoma who hasn’t figured out what’s going on.

The time given to Mary’s romantic issues signals a return to the “Downton” we love to hate, with its focus on sexual politics and women’s issues.  The show demonstrated some class consciousness in the opening episode of the season, but now we’re back to the true concerns of its targeted demographic.  Because not only is Mary wrestling with the consequences of physical attraction, but so too are her mother and grandmother.  Cora, for her part, is pining for the good old days of World War I, when the flower of  English manhood was being wiped out in Flanders field, but at least she a role that kept her busy.   Further, she wants to do something that “people will talk about four centuries later.”  But Lord Grantham, as obtuse as ever and thinking her merely a pretty face, won’t even discuss the simplest matters of estate management with her.  So it’s no surprise that she gets all gooney when Mr. Bricker the art historian shows interest in her opinions on Piero Della Francesca, one of whose paintings is on display at Downton.   Next thing you know, she’s walking around London with the guy, slightly tipsy and divulging secrets about her youth as a rich American vixen, getting Robert all jealous.

Meanwhile it turns out that even the Dowager Countess has a slightly salacious past.  Fifty years ago, during the wedding of Prince Alfred and the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the then-Countess apparently acquired a Russian admirer, Prince Kuragin, who gave her a fan.  Through a remarkable set of “Downton”-patented coincidences, Prince Kuragin is among a group of Russian émigrés who have been invited to tea by cousin Rose, who believes that the estate will remind them of the motherland and that will somehow cheer them up.  The Dowager Countess is flustered when the Prince rematerializes after all these years, and because she has spent the episode lecturing on the impossibility of sexual desire in a proper British lady, we know she had engaged in some hanky panky with this guy. Or, as Mary observes, “Granny has a past.”

So there we have it: the sluts of “Downton Abbey.”  Meanwhile, in other goings-on:

— This would never happen, not even on “”Downton Abbey,” but it seems to me the guy Mary should marry is Tom.  They have a cozy, confidential, free and easy alliance and have even declared love for one another (although apparently not THAT KIND of love.) Their union would solve two plot problems : 1) where will Mary live after she marries an aristo with an estate of his own, and 2) how are we going to stop Tom from taking little Sybil to America?  If they married they’d both stay put. This is the kind of thing that actually would have happened in real life, but it probably won’t happen on the “Downton” because Tom is too weak and lacks the animal magnetism that Mary has now been shown to require.

— In this tete-a-tete with Tom, Mary confides that in going off with Tony her mind was clouded by what Tom euphemistically describes as the thing that “Miss Elinor Glyn likes to write about in her novels.”  Elinor Glyn was an early 20th Century writer of romance novels, sort of the Jackie Collins of her day.  Since she wrote lines like, “A madness of tender caressing seized her. She purred as a tiger might have done, while she undulated like a snake,” it’s easy to see that Tom is saying that Mary’s judgment in sleeping with Tony was impaired by her sexual urges. Here’s what she looked like:

Elinor Glyn

— To nobody’s surprise, Baxter is staying on the show because she came clean about her thieving past.  She did not steal the jewels from her previous employer in order to pay for a relative’s operation, which would have been a soap opera thing to do.  No, she stole the jewels because she was seduced by another servant who promised to run off with her (but didn’t) if she’d finance the escape.  In an episode where all the women are fighting the Patriarchy, this kind of seduced-and-abandoned sob story is exactly the kind of thing to secure Cora’s forgiveness.

— I would bet my entire collection of Czarist artifacts that we will eventually be introduced to Mr. Coyle, the seducer of Miss Blake, before we are done.  While we’re at it, maybe we’ll even meet Thomas Barrow’s dear old Dad, who was always nice to Miss Blake but not to his own son (well, can you blame him?)

— Cora’s father is Jewish.  Since her maiden name was Levinson and he was always described as crude new money I always assumed this was the case, and now we know for sure.  That uppity Mary sure doesn’t act like someone who’s one-quarter Hebraic.  I assume she knows, but I wonder if everyone else does.

— Why is there such an age mismatch between the Countess Dowager and her Russian admirer?  Prince Kuragin is a vigorous and powerful figure, where she’s doddering around on a cane.  In real life, Maggie Smith is 80 and Rade Serbedzija the actor playing Kuragin is 68, which means that when their characters met 50 years ago, she was 30 and he was 18.  A little bit of cradle-robbing.

— The show would be so much simpler if everyone could just text each other, instead of sending telegrams, and driving all day simply to pop in uninvited.  There’d be no plots if Robert could just call Cora on the cell phone to make plans to meet in London; or if the police were able to trace Mr. Gregson’s GPS.

–Oh my God! Can someone please end this Bates subplot?  A witness who heard the little-lamented Mr. Green speak to his apparent murderer before he plunged beneath the wheels of a London automobile has come forward, and some others have claimed that Mr. Green spoke ill of Mr. Bates.  This is like something out of “Serial.”  Where’s Sarah Koenig when you need her?  Bates rattles off exactly where he was on the day in question, but Sarah would have explained that an innocent man would not have been able to remember what he was doing on a particular day two years earlier.  I can’t tell if Julian Fellowes is an unsophisticated story-teller and doesn’t know this, or if he does know it and is deliberately making Bates an amateur murderer.  In any event, the evidence is not very convincing and the idea that a witness would come forward at this point is almost as preposterous as the original crime (we are supposed to believe that Bates got on a train in York, and immediately after getting off the train in London found Mr. Green, pushed him to his death, and then got right back on the train in time to establish an alibi. This is about as lame as the State of Maryland’s timeline in “Serial” in which Adnon Syed supposedly left class, got driven to mall, murdered his girlfriend, and then called Jay from the Best Buy to tell him to pick him up, all within 45 minutes.)

–We once thought Daisy was dumb as a post but now Miss Bunting, that tremendous judge of character, tells us that she is actually quite “clever.” More clever than Tony Gillingham? I gather that’s a low bar.  Last week, Daisy just wanted to learn math so she could balance the books at the farm, but now Miss Bunting has put ideas in her head – wants her to get her GRE (or whatever the equivalent is in England).  This being a female-friendly show, the men think this is a daft idea and the women think she should do it.

–What’s Thomas Barrow up to in London? Sounds like a visit to one of those practitioners who promise to cure homosexuality.  Was that even an idea then?  Seems a-historical to me.

–It seems inevitable that the secrets that husbands and wives are keeping from each other are going to come back and bite everyone in the ass.  Where in the world is Anna going to keep that birth control device where Bates won’t find it?  And what’s he going to think about it when he does? And what about those poor Drewes when the Missus finds out her husband was lying about the real mother?

–That sub-plot about Mrs. Patmore’s nephew comes out of left field.  Since he was shot for deserting during the war, they won’t put his name on the monument to the honored dead in his own town, and Mrs. Patmore wants Mr. Carson to pull some strings to get him listed in the Downton village memorial.  Carson says “no way,” another example of the repressive male at work, but I’m inclined to agree with him.  This seems like one of those issues that will eventually be resolved to Mrs. Patmore’s satisfaction, though.

–Finally, at the bottom of the barrel is Edith, whom even the servants feel sorry for.  Like Bates, and now Baxter, Edith seems to have been put on this earth (or in this series) for the sole purpose of suffering. Of course she brings in on herself.  Visiting little Marigold once a week instead of once a day and weirding out the mother would have been a better strategy.  And what’s going to happen to the baby when Michael Gregson returns from Germany, as he’s bound to do by the rules of “Downton Abbey” storytelling.  Are they going to snatch the baby away like they snatched her away from that poor Swiss family?

Speaking of Mrs.Patmore, let this be your daily dollop of wisdom: Sympathy butters no parsnips.

Crawleys and King

I think I’ve reached the fifth and final stage of “Downton”-based grief.  During most of Season One I was in DENIAL when the show didn’t become a high-budget version of “Upstairs Downstairs.” The time period and the themes were the same but I couldn’t accept that “Downton” was so much pulpier than that PBS great period piece from the 1970s.  Sometime around Season Two I morphed into ANGER, particularly when the World War I plots were so weak and contrived. I was furious that such a tragic and world-shaking event as the Great War had been transformed into a backdrop for plot machinations.  And I was particularly incensed by the appearance of the Canadian veteran who claimed to be Patrick Crawley, the anmesiatic and long-lost heir to Downton. As far as I was concerned, this destroyed any respectability the show had once had and exposed it as a pure soap opera.

I BARGAINED during Season Three, promising myself I’d be a less discriminating viewer if Julian Fellowes would only clean up his act a little bit and meet me half way. When that didn’t happen I suffered DEPRESSION in Season Four, particularly after Anna’s rape.  And here we are in Season Five, when I’ve finally achieved a measure of ACCEPTANCE, recognizing that yes, it is a soap opera, and understanding that I’ll be OK with that if I accept the show for what it is.  I still object to the Emmys it pulls in and the high viewership it generates at a time when there are so many better shows on TV, but I guess even PBS viewers deserve the occasional break from high-mindedness.

Now that I have accepted “Downton” as a classed up soap opera, I can forgive it for over-using one of the tritest plot devices in the soap opera bag of tricks: the secret.  When a soap opera doesn’t know what to do, it gives someone a secret so the cast can chew up a lot of time trying to keep the secret or figure out if there even is a secret.  Meanwhile the viewer can feel smug because they are in on something that the rest of the cast doesn’t know.

Consider the secrets maintained during the second episode of the season:  Edith has placed her bastard daughter Marigold with the Drewes, a secret that she and Mr. Drewe share at the expense of Mrs. Drewe; Mary takes off on a Liverpool love cruise with Tony Gillingham, a secret that only she and Anna share; Baxter has a secret related to her career as a jewel thief and jailbird, which she and Thomas once shared but which is now more or less out in the open, (except that no one understands the motivation); Cora is keeping Mr. Bricker’s flirtations secret from Lord “Donk” Grantham; and Mr. Bates has his secret about the death of the raping valet.  That’s a lot of secrets to keep straight, and in every case, someone is keeping a secret from a spouse.

There’s even one character –Thomas Barrow – who exists solely to ferret out secrets and use them as weapons against his perceived enemies.  He once had the biggest secret of all – his homosexuality – but that was dealt with to everyone’s satisfaction last year when he was exposed and no one seemed to care.  But having been treated charitably by Lord Grantham Thomas did not abandon his life of scheming, though, presumably because bad habits die hard, but really because “Downton” needs a villain.  Instead, he convinced Lady Grantham to hire the jewel thief Baxter and wielded this secret like a weapon, trying to force her to uncover secrets about Mr. Bates.  Having been thwarted in this scheme by Baxter’s own confession to Cora, Thomas now spitefully tells the secret to Molesley, hoping to ruin his budding relationship with her.  Having been a viper to everyone except those to whom he is sexually attracted (aka Jimmy, the fornicating footman), Thomas plays the “woe is me” card to Anna (whose husband he is trying to ruin!), basically saying “no one likes me.”  Boo hoo. He seems not to have noticed that each time he does something malevolent his popularity approaches Jimmy Jones levels.

One character who seems to have no secrets, probably because he’s not intelligent enough to keep any, is His Donkness himself, Lord Grantham.  Robert Crawley seems to exist on this show purely for the purpose of showing the obtuseness of the British one-percenters.  He’s wrong about the radio (aka, “The Wireless”) agreeing to let one in the Abbey only because the King was delivering a radio speech (on the Empire no less) and then dismissing it as a fad and a “thief of life.” He acts peevishly when the war memorial committee wants to develop a contemplative memorial on his cricket pitch and insists on having his way until Mr. Carson, based on a focus group of exactly one war widow, caves in and agrees to build a generic memorial in the village square. He’s rude to Thomas about Sarah Bunting, calling her a ‘tinpot Rosa Luxemburg’ and then baiting him on Russian Revolution; later he pitches a huge fit at the prospect of Thomas taking little Sybil to America. He’s dismissive at the art historian Bricker’s travels to Alexandria, remarking with a lot of self-satisfaction that “I’m not very good at abroad.”  And of course he doesn’t pick up on the fact that Bricker is flirting with Cora, saying that is bad form for him to flirt with another man’s dog!

Mary Crawley is not as dim-witted as her dad, but she’s also not a genius on this show either.  The idea of going off with Tony Gillingam for a week of sex strikes me as the wrong approach to picking a husband.  Given the stock Mary puts into determining whether she and Tony are sexually compatible, I suppose we are to infer that Matthew Crawley’s prowess in the sack was so spectacular that Mary can’t bear to marry a man who’s not up to his standards down there.

This seems a little unlikely for someone who still refers to getting pregnant as “you know” (the second time now she’s used that phrase in a conversation about sex, btw). Or who’s so mortified to procure her own birth control that she sends her maid to do it.  Or who’s stiff as a board when she finally has her rendez-vous in Liverpool (Liverpool?  Really??!!??)  And then, when Tony tells her that he plans to “make love all night… as long as either of us has any stamina left,” she doesn’t exactly brighten up.  Instead she looks like he’s asking her to try her first oyster.

Mary’s suitors are pretty interchangeable – Rich Handsome Landed, etc. – so it was a surprise when Mr. Blake claims that Tony isn’t as “clever” as Mary is.  I had no idea there were distinctions to be made among these guys.  How are we supposed to determine who’s the cleverest of the bunch when the same voice permeates all the characters?  Nevertheless, Blake does make a good point: Mary should look for someone who’s temperamentally, intellectually, and morally on the same plane as she is.    Well, maybe we’ll know more from the glow (or lack thereof) on Mary’s face next week.

Other observations:

— As I’ve asked before, what is the time/space continuum on this show anyway?  The first scene shows Mr. Carson and the monument people meeting Lord Grantham to present their ideas, which would imply that several months have passed since the last episode. But the second scene shows Jimmy the footman leaving Downton, which would imply that only a day or two has passed since he was caught in bed with Lady Anstruther.

— Speaking of Jimmy, his final words to gay Thomas are particularly funny: “I’ll be sad to see the back of you.”  If there was a thought bubble above Thomas’s head it would have said “But I want you to be HAPPY to see the back of me. Or the front.”

— So Carson and Mrs. Hughes are finally on the verge of hooking up after that torrid hand-holding escapade at the end of last season?  Apparently so, because it pains Carson to be on the opposite side from her. Really, do they have to agree on everything?  In any event, they might as well be married because they spend the whole day together presiding over their little family.  The only thing they don’t do as a couple is the thing that Mary calls “you know.”

— Rosa Luxemburg (as in Sarah Bunting, tinpot version of) provides this week’s sole history lesson.  As Cora accurately explains to Rose, who’s never heard of her, Luxemburg was a Polish communist who tried to overthrow German’s elected government after World War I and was murdered and thrown in a river for her efforts.

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— I’m already tired of Edith and Marigold.  To be honest, I was tired of them five minutes into the season opener.  Mrs. Drewe is completely right to complain about a lady from the big house swooping in and lavishing her attention on one of their children.  This is not going to end well for someone.  And what if Grandmamma catches wind of this?  She knows about Edith getting pregnant and is sharp enough to put two and two together.  This is something she should be interfering with, instead of trying to derail Isobel Crawley’s romantic prospects.

— How many times do we need to be told that the dog’s name is Isis?  Ok we get it.  Last year Julian Fellowes had the foresight to name the Crawley’s dog after a soon–to-be terrorist state, which is also the name of an Egyptian Goddess.

— Speaking of Isobel, there are only two funny scenes in this episode, and one of them is her date with Lord Merton, chaperoned by the Dowager Countess.  I guess Violet failed in her efforts to head this off last week because Lord Merton remains hot for Isobel.  The scene is funny because the Dowager makes jokes that appear to go over the Lord’s head but which unnerve Isobel.

— The other funny scene is when Anna goes into the drug store to buy some kind of birth control device (what in the world is it?  It probably isn’t a condom since she only got one and whatever she bought required directions). In any event, she probably would have been smarter to buy the product from the male sales clerk because the woman clerk is all judgey, reminding her that “there’s always abstinence” is you don’t want to have another baby with your husband.  It’s not hard to believe that this women is abstinence junky herself.

— Best line: “Isobel has been distracted lately with Lord Merton frisking around her skirt and getting in the way.”

— Last week I thought we were going to learn that Daisy had some kind of math dyslexia but it appears that the real problem is simply that she never had a good teacher.  All it takes is one tutoring session in which Sarah Bunting explains that the figures are really her friends trying to tell a story and she’s practically on the verge of solving differential equations.  One thing that was very right about this scene, though, is that Sarah agreed to accept payment for the tutoring lessons, understanding that it would help Mrs. Patmore and Daisy maintain their dignity if they weren’t treated as charity cases.  One gold star for Sarah, and half a gold star also for giving Thomas a pep talk encouraging him to stand up for himself.

— I was struck by the formality with which the family and servants listened to the King’s speech, including the family rising at the Dowager Countess’s urging when he began to talk. That was a nice touch, as well as her observation that “The monarchy has thrived on magic and mystery, strip them away and people may think the royal family is just like us.”  Trust me, Countess, no one is ever going to think that another family is just like the Crawleys.

— It was probably a coincidence, but Anna’s rape scene was broadcast simultaneously with the 2014 Golden Globes telecast and here she was at this year’s Golden Globes – or here Joanne Froggatt was at least – accepting an award and patting herself on the back for raising rape awareness.

— I’m sure there was a collective groan of pain across America when that policeman showed up in the final scene.   A witness to the death of the Raping Valet has come forward.  Oh please, not again.  It’s been two years now since the Valet exited this mortal coil and all of a sudden a witness comes forward?  Can’t Julian Fellowes think of anything else to do with Bates than to drag him through another murder case?

As for next week, in the “next week” clips, we see the Dowager Countess chastising Mary for allowing herself to be seduced by Gillingham.  Now I understand why Matthew Weiner insists on laughably unhelpful “next week” clips on Mad Men.  We’re better off not really knowing how that story line advances.

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Well, another year is in the books.  Another year of hand-wringing about the future of television, even as it delivered some of the best and worst programming in the history of the medium.

What we now call “television,” (i.e., broadcast, cable, streaming, etc.) is so vast that it’s impossible for any one person to watch every worthy or socially significant TV show.   Consequently any review of any particular 12 months is going to be impressionistic at best.  With that wimp-out caveat in mind, here are some of my favorite things from the previous year:

1. Alison Tolman – An unlikely breakout star in the miniseries “Fargo,” a terrific police drama about the gradations of good and evil, Tolman’s humanity kept us grounded and emotionally vested in the outcome. With such a short career to date, it’s hard to know whether we love Tolman herself or her character, but having seen her in a few short parts on “The Mindy Kaling Project,” I’ll say it’s a bit of both.  Tolman exudes a decency that’s in short supply on TV.

2. “Brooklyn Nine Nine” – An Andy Samberg cop comedy set in a Brooklyn precinct house, “Brooklyn Nine Nine” is one of the few reliably funny sitcoms on TV.  There are no pretensions on this show, just humor that’s a step above silly and a step below meaningful.

3. That Single-Take Tracking Shot from True Detective – The highlight of “True Detective,” one of the most absorbing and visually arresting series of the year, was a six-minute single take tracking shot in which an undercover cop played by Matthew McConaughey orchestrates a heist in a drug-infested Louisiana housing project.  Directed by Cary Fukunaga, this is possibly the most exciting single scene of the year, with the tension building minute-by-minute as the camera glides through drug dens, cramped rooms, backyards and even above a chain link fence.  This is a scene worth watching again and again just to appreciate the directing mastery.

4. Don Pardo – For 39 years Don Pardo was the opening announcer for Saturday Night Live and, as is so often the case, a bit underappreciated until he was gone.  SNL alumnus Daryl Hammond has been announcing since Pardo’s death in May (at age 96!) and since then the opening hasn’t had the same zip and joi de vivre as it did when Pardo belted out the intros

5. Podcasts – Now that “Serial” has taken the nation by storm, people are discovering there’s this thing called “podcasts.”  But not every podcast is about true crime.  There are a ton of great podcasts about TV and culture.  My personal favorites are Grantland’s “Hollywood Prospectus,” Slate’s “Culture Gabfest” and Bald Move’s Mad Men Happy Hour.

6. Olive Kitteridge – This beautiful HOB adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s collection of interlocking short stories provides a lot for a depressive to chew on.  Olive is too smart and too honest to be happy in her small Maine town, but she endures.

7. The Ending of “The Colbert Report” – We’ve come to the point where every show that’s been on more than a couple of years is expected to come up with an emotionally gratifying series finale.  “The Colbert Report” sent us off with a sappy song (“We’ll Meet Again”) performed by one of the most astounding array of personages ever assembled on one stage – a diverse group of writers, politicians, inventors, activists, sports figures and even a few celebrities. These performers, including Henry Kissinger, George Lukas, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gloria Steinem, Tom Brokaw, Ken Burns, Alan Alda, Big Bird and many many more, were joined with shout-outs from Bill Clinton, J.J. Abrams, the troops in Afghanistan and the space station.

8. The World’s Greatest Selfie – The Academy Awards were as ridiculous and self-aggrandizing as ever this year, but there was a stand-out moment when Ellen DeGeneres convinced a group of A-List movie stars to pose for a selfie.   These are very high-end stars: Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, etc. And yet like teenagers at the prom, they couldn’t help but crowding and pushing all over themselves to get into the picture.

9. Mad Men – The once highly acclaimed series no longer gets the respect it once enjoyed having been passed over at the Emmys and left off most top-ten lists. 2014 seemed to be a year of “Mad Men” fatigue, which is a shame because the seven episodes shown this year were among the best of the series.  Don Draper began the season at his lowest point ever, ejected by his partners for bad behavior and faced with another marriage on the rocks.  By the end of this short run (which was the first half of the final season), Don has fought back and regained his former position at the firm, repaired some ruptured relationships, and gained important self-insight and honesty.  Perhaps my favorite scene was the final one of the year, which like Colbert’s show concludes with a corny old song: the recently departed Bert Cooper reappears to Don and sings and dances to The Best Things in Life are Free.”

10. The iPad Air Ad – My favorite ad of the year featured Robin Williams quoting Walt Whitman as innovators and explorers are shown using the iPad to create, build and inspire. As the nation’s most successful company, Apple can afford to offer beautiful, inspiring ads without worrying about an immediate ROI on their ad spend.  I know that all ads are ultimately cynical and manipulative, but I’d rather be manipulated by Walt Whitman than a sexy beer drinker.  After all, as Whitman asks, in a vain and grasping world, what’s the point of it all? “Answer: that you are here. That life exists and identity. That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

So, there we have it, another great year on TV.  Will we even be watching conventional television next year at this time?  Probably, but who knows?  Either way, happy 2015.

This photograph is (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd and can only be reproduced for editorial purposes directly in connection with Downton Abbey, Carnival Film & Television Ltd or ITV plc. Once made available by ITV plc Picture Desk, this photograph can

Last year I wrote a column observing that “Downton Abbey” had abandoned its natural subject of class conflict for an emphasis on sexual politics.  It’s obvious that Julian Fellowes read that piece and took it to heart because the Season Five premiere was all about class (I mean, he MUST have read it, otherwise I would have been wrong, which is a concept not to be entertained.)

From the very first scene, when Lord Grantham (aka “Donk”) grumbles about Ramsay MacDonald’s new Labour government, to the end, when he orders his handsome footman fired for between-the-sheets extracurricular activities with Lady Anstruther, we are treated to a series of moanings and groanings about how class distinctions are falling. These in turn are accompanied by some “Occupy Downton” grumblings from the servant class, who are wondering if life wouldn’t be better if they worked in a factory.

Why, there’s Mr. Carson being asked to serve as chair of the local war memorial instead of his Lordship.  Well I never!  And look, a mere schoolteacher is invited to the Crawley’s 34th anniversary dinner, where she proceeds to give the Lord a lot of lip about that very same war memorial.  And then there’s Lord Merton, for some reason besotted by the very middle class Isobel Crawley until the Dowager Countess steps in and reintroduces him to Lady Shackelton, a richer and more vivacious aristocrat.  We also have the spectacle of the Dowager Countess’ butler being such a snob that he refuses to serve Dr. Clarkson even a piece of cake, while the good doctor in turn refers to the aristocrats as a “different tribe.”

Yet in the end, while there might be a revolution in Russia, there’s not one yet at Downton; instead, class distinctions are still more or less the same as they’ve always been, and everything is papered over to soothe the anxieties of the one-percent.   Mr. Carson accepts the chair of the memorial committee only if they will name Lord Grantham as “patron” (whatever that is — sounds expensive).  Whew, wouldn’t want to have the Lord’s ego to be bruised, would we?  He might decide to invest the family fortune in another Canadian railroad!  Mr. Carson also tamps down any downstairs socialism, suppressing servant support for the Labour Prime Minister, who is said to understand ordinary people, which Carson dismisses as completely irrelevant to the needs of governing.

Also unchanged is the pathos of the pathetic characters: The pyromaniac Edith, torturing herself now because she placed her bastard daughter in the home of a tenant farmer; and the Latinate (or Spanish) Moseley, making himself ridiculous by blackening his hair to tempt Baxter with his renewed vigor and youthfulness.  The kipper-brained Daisy’s not quite as pathetic, but she’s developing a poor self-image because she can’t handle math, and is still storming around like a teenager told she can’t go to that sleepover party. And no wonder she’s bummed.  She’s been a lowly junior cook and widowed virgin with no prospects for advancement for over a dozen years (of course she could always leave and help manage her father-in-law’s farm but she prefers to scrub pans.)

To the extent there’s any change at Downton, which is set this season in 1924, about ten months after we last saw these characters, it has to do with a new frankness about sex.  Lady Mary confides in her maid that she’s reluctant to marry again without making sure she and he husband are compatible in the sack, or as she put is, “you know.”  Her main suitor, Lord Gillingam, must have bugged her boudoir because the very next night he barges in — not to ravish her but to propose that they take a trip together to give their nether regions a test run.  “I want us to become lovers,” he announces as matter-of-factly as if he were proposing that they go to the movies.   He must be pretty confident in his ability to satisfy the ladies THAT WAY, if he thinks a week of pleasure with him is going leave this ice princess panting for more.  And while we’re at it, someone should warn him that the last two men to scale Mount Mary are now dead. (Which reminds me, whatever happened to the other rivals, Blake and Napier?)

Meanwhile, in the drawing room, Tom is equally upfront with Lord Grantham on his sex life, or lack therein.  “Miss Bunting and I are not lovers,” he feels compelled to assure the Lord, who’s heard tales of Tom and Sarah cavorting in the upper floors during cousin Rose’s coming out party in London last year.  And then downstairs, Mr. Bates makes a smirky joke to Anna about what you need to do to become a mother.  Of course there’s also a scene of Jimmy the footman rolling around in in bed with Lady Anstruther.  Shocking all the way around.

In the end, this episode did what it was supposed to do.   It updated us on where we left off with the characters (since nothing seems to have happened in the past ten months), set the scene for the rest of the season, bedazzled us with flapper outfits and interior scenery, and left us rolling our eyes at the creaky plot machinations. Not a bad show; not a great show.

Some other observations:

— This was one of the less stupid episodes of “Downtown Abbey,” since only a few really preposterous things happened.  Perhaps the dumbest was the way Edith set the house on fire.  Bereft by the continued disappearance of her married beau, she flings one of his books into the fireplace and apparently swoons, not noticing that she has set the rug on fire.  Thomas Barrow needs to swoop in and carry her unconscious body to safety; we then discover that Downton Abbey offers fire hoses in every nook and cranny and that it only takes about 45 seconds to get the local firefighting squad to arrive at the scene.

— Julian Fellowes usually telegraphs and then spells out the most basic plot points (note the numerous times we are told about the Lord’s displeasure at being passed over for the war memorial committee) but there was one scene where the viewer was compelled to draw his or her own conclusions: Lord Gillingham shows up without his valet and Mr. Bates has to dress him.  “You don’t travel with a valet, these days, my Lord?” he asks, sweet as pie.  Not since you killed him, Bates! is the unspoken answer.  Fellowes is not eschewing exposition just so that we can figure this out for ourselves, though. No, the problem is that since the apparent murder of the valet is a secret, there’s no character who can remind us that Bates is the apparent murderer.

— Lord Grantham need not have worried about Ramsay MacDonald (see below) whose 1924 prime ministership lasted less than a year. And even when McaDonald became PM again in 1929, he wasn’t able to impose his socialist views on the country.  That didn’t happen until the Attlee government after World War II.

Ramsay MacDonald Photo

— No one ever seems to think through their schemes on this show.  Why did Barrow think he could go to Lady Grantham and tell her that he’d knowingly recommended a jewel thief to be her lady’s maid without her being upset?  And why did Edith think it was a good idea to get a local farmer to adopt her daughter?  Is she going to be happy watching her flesh and blood grow up to be a farmer’s wife under her very eyes?  And does Lord Grantham understand that if Mary marries another Lord, he’s going to want her to live at HIS estate, not at Downton?

— Speaking of Baxter, it’s painfully obvious that we’re going to learn that she stole those jewels for some greater purpose.  Like to pay for an operation for some family member.  She’s clearly in the Anna/Bates club of sacrificial martyrs.

— I’m also going to go out on a limb and predict that Sarah, the math teacher, will teach math to Daisy.  We might also learn that Daisy has some kind of math dyslexia, if that’s a thing.  Whenever someone on a show like Downton drones on about how stupid she is, it usually turns out that she have a learning disability.  BTW, why does Daisy need advanced math skills to work on the accounts at the farm?  Isn’t that just basic arithmetic?  I hope Miss Bunting doesn’t use the Common Core, because all Daisy needs to do is memorize adding and subtracting and she should be good to go.

— Thomas Barrow has the most amazing luck, doesn’t he? (Aside from the obvious fact of being gay in the early 20th Century.)  First he gets his hand shot clean through by a German sniper in WWI only to see it miraculously repaired as good as new.  Then for 12 years he manages to hoodwink both Lady and Lord Grantham with his lies about the rest of the staff.  And on the VERY NIGHT his scheming is exposed by Lady Grantham, putting his job in jeopardy, he manages to save Edith’s life and win Cora’s everlasting gratitude.

— Who’d have thought “Downton” would make a pitch for gay marriage, but there’s gay Thomas observing that “we don’t all have the option,” when Jimmy observes that everyone wants to “settle down” eventually.  Are we supposed to assume that Thomas’ malignant personality is twisted by his homosexuality? That’s not very politically correct.

— Marigold?  Odd name for someone who wasn’t raised in a hippie commune.

— Where the heck is Greggson?  I’ve theorized that he was a British spy sent to keep an eye on the Nazis, and indeed, there was a reference to Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch last year. But he’s been gone for two years now.  Did the actor who played him decide he wanted to star in a Broadway play like Matthew Crawley and Sybil Crawley did two seasons ago?  I’d look him up but I’m afraid I’ll find spoilers.

— Funniest tweet of the night? From @meninblazers:  “Glimpsing Lady Anstruther paw Jimmy is like witnessing Chris Christie hug Jerry Jones.”

— Good old Tom.  Not a lover, but also not a hater.  Still on the fence about going to America.  Still being led around by the nose by aggressive women.  He also seems to have developed some kind of Stockholm Syndrome relationship with Lord Grantham.

— Speaking of Sarah Bunting, she’s kind of a bitch isn’t she?  Mouthing off at Lord Grantham’s dinner party, trying to humiliate him by pointing out that the memorial committee didn’t want him as chair. Not a very pretty picture of a doctrinaire socialist.

— There’s a lot of busybody meddling with other people’s love lives on this episode.  The Dowager Countess trying to hook up Lord Merton and Lady Shackelton, while fixing up Isobel and Dr.Clarkson. Cousin Rose, throwing Sarah and Tom together.  His Lordship inviting Tony Gillingham down to proposition his daughter.  Thomas facilitating the midnight twist between Jimmy and the Loose Lady.

So on to next week. From the reviews it looks like we’ll see more class-based plot lines when Russian exiles fleeing Bolshevik Russia  land at Downton.  Dos vee danya.

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At my age it’s damn embarrassing to have to admit that you’re gaga over a professional athlete but there’s no getting around it, my relationship to Tom Brady is analogous to a teen girl and Taylor Swift — without the crying.  In fact, I had the recent epiphany that Brady is my favorite athlete of all time, which is saying a lot considering that I grew up outside of Boston, where Sports Gods grow on trees.  Could anyone really supplant Yaz, the architect of the 1967 “Impossible Dream” Red Sox team that turned me into a lifelong baseball fan?  Or Bobby Orr and Larry Bird, whose highlight reels of grace and sheer athleticism can still reduce me to tears? Or Normar Garciaparra, whose greatness at shortstop coincided with my own son’s interest in baseball, forever linking our family’s multi-generational love of the Red Sox?  I think so, this is one time when reason triumphs over nostalgia.

To make the Brady-worship even more unlikely, I don’t even LIKE football, which is a brutal, self-important, flag-waving, militaristic, bullying enterprise.  I hate the idea that we are watching men literally bash their brains out for our enjoyment and have stated on more than one occasion that when Brady retires, football will be dead to me. And what’s a little bit sad is that my life as a “fan” will probably die when Brady retires.  How likely is it that a young new superstar of this magnitude will arrive on the scene to delight me into my sentience?

It’s an odd business making heroes out of athletes.  Most of them are selfish, monomaniacal pinheads.  Yet we invest our hopes and dreams in them. We admire our heroes because they embody a higher level of accomplishment than we mere mortals, and athletes, like singers and actors, are performers whose excellence is acted out in public and thereby are disproportionately worshiped relative to their contributions to society.  Their physical achievements in running or throwing a ball are so astounding that they become a metaphor for all the other attributes of human experience.  We can’t really admire the world’s greatest accountant because we can’t see him in action, but athletes are right out there in the open, failing, bouncing back, and achieving for us all to observe and judge.

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But Brady is more than a great athlete – he’s a supernova across many areas.  Yaz, Orr, and Bird were tremendous on the field, ice and court, but they were all inarticulate, introverted and uncharismatic in regular life.  Not so with Brady.  Here are some of the reasons he ascends to the top pantheon of sports gods:

His tremendous sports accomplishments.  Based on what he’s done on the field alone, he’d be probably still be my top sports hero.  He’s got those twelve division titles and three Super Bowl championships, and could easily have had two more rings except for a couple of freak plays by the NY Giants.  In most statistical categories he ranks as the fifth or sixth more productive QB of all time, and those rankings will presumably improve over time.  Whether or not he’s the greatest QB ever (which I’d argue yes), he’s definitely in the top five.  Think about that.  How rare is it to be a top five athlete in any sport?

But the stats don’t tell the whole story.  Brady is one of the most thrilling quarterbacks of all time, with 33 Q4 comebacks and 44 game winning drives.    With Brady on the field, it’s always possible the Patriots will come roaring back.  I saw this in person myself on December 29, 2002, a must-win game against the Dolphins that should be legendary but is now widely forgotten.  It was the last game of the season and the Pats needed a win to advance to the playoffs.  With 5 minutes left, Miami kicked a field goal to go ahead 24-13.  On the next drive, Brady marched them down the field to score a TD and two-point conversion to pull within three; the Pats recovered the onside kick and Brady got them close enough so that Adam Vinetieri could kick a field goal.  Then in overtime he got them close enough to get a game-winning field goal.  I’ve never gotten over the brilliance of those three drives.  Except for those of us who were there at Gillette Stadium, no one really remembers that game because a few hours later, the Jets beat the Packers to tie the Pats in the standing and advance to the playoffs.  The point is, though, that when the season was on the line, a very young Brady turned in a tremendous performance and gave his team another shot at a title.

New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09

On rare occasions I’ll watch other teams on TV and I always feel sorry for their fans because instead of Brady they have inferior, less capable QBs: guys who take 20 seconds to get a snap off when there’s only 50 second left on the clock, or who throw a game-killing interception, or who aren’t smart enough to read a blitz or gain a third-and-short first down with a quarterback sneak.

His personal life.  Now this is where Brady really separates himself from the other athletic superstars and moves into fantasy-land.  I really have no idea what kind of marriages Yaz, Bird and Orr had, but I do know that none of them married a super-model.  You have to go back to Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe to find a sports marriage with more firepower than Brady’s, and Joe had already retired when he met Marilyn.  What’s impressive is not just that Brady married a gorgeous woman, it’s that he married someone who is, like him, at the very top of her profession. Gisele actually out-earns Brady, making theirs a marriage of equals, rare among sports figures at any level.  And by all accounts it’s a happy marriage, also rare among celebrity pairings. (I particularly love Gisele’s cute Instagram messages).

tom-brady-gisele-bundchen-honeymoon-10

We shouldn’t underestimate how hard it is to function at the very apex of celebrity culture in a world of paparazzi, TMZ, social media, and 24-hour news networks.  Yet he seems to thrive in it, gliding serenely from game to home to practice with the cameras constantly on him.

And who cannot be impressed with the way Tom and Gisele support each other, most famously after Super Bowl XLVI, when Brady’s receivers let him down and they lost so disappointingly to the Giants again.  Heckled by boorish Giants fans after the game, Gisele turned on them and retorted  “You’ve to catch the ball when you’re supposed to catch the ball. My husband cannot f**king throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time.”  I’d like to think that my own wife would have my back like that under similar circumstances.  

 The Cinderella story.  Perhaps even more amazing than Brady’s career is that it almost didn’t happen at all.  He was a back-up quarterback at Michigan as a freshman and sophomore, then had to compete with another future NFL quarterback, Drew Henson, as a junior and senior before gaining the starting spot in the last half of his senior year.  He was drafted 199th by the Patriots in the sixth round and started his career as the fourth backup to the then-famous Drew Bledsoe.

Bledsoe was one of those QBs that conventional coaches and unimaginative fans like – sort of a poor man’s Peyton Manning: tall, commanding, great passing skills, looks great but not a winner.  If he hadn’t been injured in the second game of the 2001 season Brady might never have played at all.  And here’s where you have to credit Bill Belichick.  When Bledsoe was well enough to play again, he stuck with the young, inexperienced Brady, who at the time didn’t have the big QB numbers, but somehow found a way to win.  With Brady at the helm, the Patriots went on to win their first Super Bowl and Bledsoe would be traded to the Bills at the end of the season.

brady and bledsoe

 (Bledsoe doing chart work for Brady)

This early lack of respect for his skills has fueled Brady’s determination to show the world they were wrong about them.  And it makes the rest of us wonder about the role of luck in our lives.  If Bledsoe hadn’t been injured, Brady might never have gotten a chance to show what he was capable of.  How many other great talents are there in the arts and sports world who never get discovered?  Or closer to home, what about great men and women who’d make fantastic spouses but never get the chance, or kids who never find the right teacher to inspire them?  You don’t really like to think too hard about the role that chance and randomness play in our lives.

Brady as a Teammate:  Let’s start with his team-friendly contract Brady makes a lot of money but he structured his deal so that the Patriots would have more available cash to sign free agents and keep their star players.  For most athletes, squeezing the last dollar out of their teams has always been their highest priority, as if a $225 million contract instead of one for $175 million will improve their quality of life.  For many it’s an ego thing, where it’s important to make the most on the team or in the sport.  For Brady, it’s more important to win.  He also seems to understand that you can more money with endorsements on a winning team, so that for the overall bottom line, winning is the best route to the ultimate total income paycheck.  And after listening to David Ortiz, Carlton Fisk and dozens of other Red Sox players complain about thir contracts, it’s such a relief knowing that Brady doesn’t threaten to leave for an extra couple million dollars a year.

Brady has also emerged as a team leader who prods, cajoles and inspires his teammates to higher achievement.  In sports writing it’s always hard to tell where solid reporting ends and hagiography begins, but the persistent stories about Brady being a great teammate suggests they contain more than an element of truth.  Brady is just one of the guys, they say; he doesn’t bristle when Belichick criticizes his performance in team meetings; he practices harder than anyone else; he treats every player on the team – from the superstar to the practice scrub – with respect; he gets so fired up when his teammates make a great play that he runs down the field  to head-butt him; he has an amazing work ethic and doesn’t ask anything of his teammates that he isn’t willing to do himself.

Brady as a Personality.  It all might be an act, and if it is, I appreciate the effort that’s gone into shaping Brady’s image as a modest, self-effacing guy.  From the moment he stepped in from Bledsoe, Brady’s been under a microscope and he’s only faltered once: when trying to show that he was an ordinary guy, he told CG Magazine that he searched for Internet porn like everyone else.  Since then, he’s kept his nose clean, but unlike that disciplined automaton Derek Jeter, who’s never said anything interesting, Brady at least displays a personality.  He’s passionate on the field, self-deprecating in interviews, and generally good humored (here he is on Funny or Die and in his DailyMVP commercial: “Boomshackalacka”).

Tom Brady on to 2015

As if this isn’t enough, Brady has become a social media master, especially on Facebook.  Again, maybe he’s hired a social media genius, but the personality that comes through is fun and normal.  He’s definitely working hard to show that he’s not full of himself so the posts are remarkably self-effacing.  There’s the video of him lumbering down the field to the Chariots of Fire theme song (see below), there are the GIFs of him trying to high-five unresponsive teammates, the photo of him on the film set of TED 2, the call-outs to the Celtics and the San Francisco Giants, his Ugg ad with his mom and another Ugg ad with his dad (see below). And then of course, there’s his resume out of college, a reminder that Brady once thought he wouldn’t have a job in football and might need to tout his internship at Merrill Lynch.

Tom_Brady_resume

So now we head to another play-off season.  With two more wins Brady will be in the Super Bowl for the sixth time, with a shot at a fourth championship.  Of course play-off football is a crapshoot.  They Pats were lucky to win in 2002 and unlucky to loose in 2008 so everything probably evens out over time.  The point is that Brady has consistently taken the Patriots into the play-offs and given them a chance at winning it all.  You can’t help but take it for granted but you never should.  But if the Pats manage to win it all this year, Brady will be considered the greatest QB of all time and no one will take him for granted again.

To conclude, here are some great Tom Brady videos: