Sunday, February 17, 2013

TV Watch: As the "Downton Abbey" season draws to a close, do we have to wonder if we're seeing the real thing?


by Ken

As we arrive at the end of the third season of Downton Abbey (well, not actually; if I've got this right, we saw that last week, and what we're seeing tonight -- or whenever our local PBS outlets get around to it -- is the post-Season 3 2012 "Christmas Special"), I have to admit that I'm coming late to a controversy that has been festering online now for, well, all three seasons: the reediting of the show for U.S. airwaves. All I can say in my defense is that I try not to spend a lot of time hanging out among the online TV crazies.

In this case, though, they've finally got my attention. In good part, I guess, I was put off the trail by what now seem clearly to have been out-and-out lies about the editing that has been done. I was aware that in the U.S. we've been seeing the show in different numbers of episodes of different lengths from what was shown in the U.K., but I was led to believe that it was just a question of trimming some bits of extra-length treatment of issues likely to be of interest only to British viewers, like the inheritance issue that underlay the whole shebang: the legal impossibility of either the Grantham earldom or any part of the Downton estate being passed on to any of the three daughters of Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) -- an outrage compounded by the fact that such assets as remained in the estate had been salvaged by means of the money brought to it in marriage by the American-born Lady Grantham. And hey, it wasn't hard to imagine that the trims involved tediously endless discussion of British inheritance law which only a Brit could love.

Not at all the case, alas. It turns out that, in the name of refitting the series to the planned U.S. time-slot scheme, the entire thing has been reedited, involving not just occasional trimming of tiresome Brits yammering tiresomelessly about male-only inheritance, but cuts all over the place, including large numbers of entire scenes. If I had actually done the math, I would have realized that the time difference was most unlikely to be accounted for by a snip here and a snip there. I guess it just never occurred to me that the U.S. presenters would have the nerve to present us such a transformed product under such barefacedly dishonest premises.

Let me add at once that I'm not yet in a position to comment definitively on the force of the transformation, since I haven't seen the untampered enterprise. Maybe all those online TV crazies who are crying bloody murder are just the usual obsessives who will cry bloody murder over the merest paper cut on the basis that they happen to have discovered it. They're not known for much sense of proportion, those online TV crazies.

But now that I've lost my innocence on the subject of the reediting, I'm forced into a state of suspension of judgment by two factors:

* First, there's the obvious quantitative difference. I'm not going to quote you the raw numbers, because that will get my head spinning, and it's complicated by the fact that Britain's ITV, unlike PBS, is a commercial network. But among the online testimonies are any number of recountings of the kinds of things that have been cut, and on the face of it I find them pretty astonishing. It sure makes a person wonder how it can be said that we're seeing the same show.

* Second, there's my own response, recorded here more than once, that while I like Downton Abbey, it doesn't seem to me as spellbindingly magnificent as a lot of viewers have seemed to think. In part that response has rested on the sense that it's okay but nothing special just as a piece of storytelling. Which means that it at least could make a significant difference knowing that what we're seeing isn't in fact the way the story was told in its homeland. There's at least the possibility that the story was actually told by its creators, chiefly series creator-writer Julian Fellowes, in a significantly more involving and persuasive way.

It will be fairly easy and perhaps even pleasurable to find out, since the "Original U.K. Edition" is readily available on DVD and BluRay even in U.S.-playable format. I do resent, though, that I will have to go to the trouble and expense of acquiring the show in that form, not to mention the lack of candor on the part of PBS which has thus far made me unaware of the need to do so.

Maybe it will turn out that the fuss over the reediting has indeed been much ado about, well, not much. But even so, you have to wonder about the arrogance of whoever has been involved in both the decision to reedit the show and then the actual execution of it. On the latter count, I think of a man a friend of mine once worked for who devoted a significant portion of his time to reediting portions of classic films to which he had actually acquired distribution rights, and reediting those portions the way he thought they should have been edited originally if their directors had had his peerless editing skills. I have to explain that the victims of his egomaniacal hackery included Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, he stated baldly that Hitchcock didn't know how to edit!

But of course this crackpot's versions never took the place of the actual films, as has been the case for U.S. viewers of Downton Abbey. Against this I do realize that the hysterical U.S. response to the show has after all been based on the versions that have been shown here. Still, now that I'm aware of what has been going on, and pending the opportunity to actually experience the original version, it does occur to me to consider that Julian Fellowes is a highly experienced and expertly accomplished writer for the screen as well as the page. With nothing more to go on,

I did find a January 2011 account, "Setting the Downton Abbey record straight," which appeared online days before the U.S. launch of the first season of Downton Abbey, by Bill Young on TellySpotting ("You Brit TV Pub"). It said in part:
Recent “reports” from the UK have suggested that the Downton Abbey which was broadcast in the UK is not what we will see in the US on PBS. Supposedly, the period drama had been cut from its original eight hours to a more short-attention spanned, manageable length of six hours. Some notion having to do with Americans not understanding the inheritance storyline throughout.

Fortunately, I was able to speak with the producers of Masterpiece today and can now set the record straight and leave everyone in America with the assurance that you can handle quality drama on television. Here are the main points to understand as fact….

1. The series has been trimmed to fit PBS time slots and to allow for Masterpiece packaging, hosting, etc. Most of the reported time disparity is due to the difference between ITV commercial length vs. PBS length conventions
2. The cuts were made overall throughout the entire series and not from episode one as some reports suggest. Also, this is not an uncommon practice as series cross the Atlantic
3. Carnival Productions, the original producer of Downton Abbey, did the editing. Not PBS and not Masterpiece
4. No character or storyline was eliminated, dropped or altered with the edits
Well, maybe. As I said, I don't know, but one's confidence isn't inspired by assertions like this from Bill Young: "If cuts are made, it is merely to make it a tighter show regardless of which side of the pond it originates." It's hard not to suspect that Bill drank PBS Kool-Aid. He certainly seems to have been snookered in the matter of the respective running times. The DVD versions are significantly different in running times, and that obviously has nothing to do with commercials.

Since point (4) is clearly untrue, I wonder even about (3). I'd feel a little better if I knew for sure that nobody connected with PBS or Masterpiece was involved in the reediting -- apart from demanding it, that is.

One last thought: Doesn't the whole reediting appear a bit peculiar for Seasons 2 and 3? Maybe we can give PBS and Masterpiece a pass for Season 1, since despite the huge acclaim the show received in the U.K., there was no assurance that U.S .audiences would respond as enthusiastically. But for Seasons 2 and 3, when Downton Abbey's return was as frantically anticipated as anything I can think of in U.S. Public Television history, was there still any need to condescend to U.S. audiences? I understand that PBS had its preferred format, but is it really sacrosanct?

I'm thinking of it this way. Does it seem likely that there was really a single local station that was clamoring to PBS or Masterpiece, in anticipation of Season 2 or 3: Please, please, give us less of Downton Abbey?



At 5:02 AM, Blogger gcwall said...

Downton Abbey is a soap opera with better English language that is of little interest to anyone, but some white people who want to feel nostalgia for colonialism. The best writing the show offers deals with the juxtaposition of different generations in cultural transition.


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