Those with a taste for historical drama will have to shift loyalties this week. Boardwalk Empire's third season is coming to its no doubt grisly conclusion this Sunday, while Downton Abbey, the British import, is starting up again. The latter has now become so crazy-popular that NBC is going to try to rip it off. I'm just not sure an American Downton Abbey will work, however. We've been hearing for decades about how the world is getting flatter and smaller and more interconnected. But some fundamental differences remain. Nowhere is the chasm between Europe and America more clearly visible than in the differences between Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire.
Even though the shows are superficially similar — glamorous costume dramas set in the early part of the twentieth century — they contain diametrically opposed visions of labor, which is always where the heart of any big narrative resides. In Jane Austen's entire body of novels, for example, servants are mentioned exactly once. She artfully removed the immense labor required to support the romantic dramas of her characters so that the reader could focus entirely on the little love affairs of the rich and noble. The wonderful dancing parties at which Elizabeth Bennet seethes over her desire for Darcy actually involved huge amounts of physical effort from men and women whose existences are never mentioned. These sinister absences are barely ever noticed, even by the most careful readers. We want to forget the grind and the horror and the oppression that underlies the beauty. I remember going on a tour of a former plantation in Louisiana, and the tour guide described how an enormous oak table served different functions during the day, being in the dining room for breakfast and the main hall for the evening. "The table moved during the day" is how she put it. No mention was made of the fact that the huge, hulking piece of furniture needed to be lugged around the property by slaves. To mention that would have been impolite, crude.
The idea of American exceptionalism is, thankfully, dying.
The German philosopher Walter Benjamin defined historical materialism as the awareness that everything beautiful comes at the cost of something ugly. Both Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire are materialistic in this sense. Dinners are not magically prepared. People make them. But in Downton Abbey, owning property is principally a matter of luck. The show follows a middle-class lawyer who is thrust into owning a magnificent English estate. The love story was interesting in the first season, but has fallen apart because Matthew and Mary resist the fact that they should get married to preserve the property. The action had to be worked out so that they really fell in love, and then fell into a marriage of convenience, which is inherently preposterous. Julian Fellowes is a wonderful writer usually — his book Snobs should be purchased by everybody who even vaguely enjoys his television show — but that can't hide the fact that Downton Abbey right now is one of the worst-written shows on television. I think the reason is a structural flaw. The basic conceit that property is a matter of fluke rather than struggle means there's not much tension to drive the story forward. The characters are the toys of fate. What they do has little effect on how they end up. So who really cares? The new season is basically an antique fashion show where the models happen to speak.
The new season of Boardwalk Empire runs in exactly the opposite direction. The first two seasons focused on the main character's basic contradiction. Nucky Thompson was both a gangster and a fine, upstanding member of society. He made a living through crime and yet represented the system fully, even in its most expensive forms of sentimentality. His comfort with his double life was the core of the show's appeal, a variation of Balzac's famous statement that behind every great fortune is a great crime. This season has seen the contradiction unravel. From the beginning, its motto has been "You can't be half a gangster." The world of Nucky and his relatively mild cronies is going. The world of the Commission is arriving. In Boardwalk Empire, money is made. The achievement of property may be brutal and corrupt and nasty, but it is the result of effort. In Boardwalk Empire, the characters struggle, with a complete lack of grace, to carve a bit of the world out for themselves. In Downton Abbey, money happens to people. The question for its bewildering array of characters is not how to improve themselves or their lives, but how to live gracefully with the lot they've been given. This is the fundamental situation that underlies all the great British shows of recent years — a class system that imprisons the identities of its inhabitants. My favorite British comedy of the moment is Peep Show, an odd-couple pairing about the uptight Mark, who follows all the rules, and his anarchic, lazy, drug-addled roommate Jeremy, who does little more than loaf and masturbate. One of the show's most insidious and vicious commentaries on British life is that they don't end up in all that different situations. They can't fall that far or rise that much. They're both miserable.
Fatalism versus a belief in personal agency remains the major difference in spiritual outlook between the United States and Europe. I wrote in a recent column that America has every bit the same class structure as the major European democracies, but as recent political events have shown, America also has the good sense to hate the fact, and to fight against it. One of the most interesting and unexpected geopolitical turns is happening right in front of our eyes: America is becoming one of the world's most progressive countries. For thirty years, the United States has been the bellwether for conservatism. And yet today America, not Europe, is expanding its social safety net dramatically. Democrats and Republicans seem to be close to agreeing on a massive tax increase on the wealthy. The young conservatives who are going to shape the future of the Republican Party have begun to speak of "pro-market" rather than "pro-business" policies. Inequality of outcomes is once again a legitimate subject of political discussion. Meanwhile, the austerity programs in Europe, which have proven totally ineffective over four years of implementation, are morphing into a different, broader project. European governments are ending the social contract between workers and owners established after the Second World War. It should come as no surprise that fascism is on the rise in Europe again. Real fascism. The kind that burns books and then people. Before the last election, independent economists predicted that whoever won, the United States economy would add twelve million jobs over the next four years. As Europe tries to stop itself from crumbling, America will become both more socialist and wealthier.
The idea of American exceptionalism is rapidly dying, and I think we can all be grateful for the passing of this inherently silly idea. Mitt Romney is the author of No Apology: The Case for American Greatness and he got beat; he also barely brought up the subject on the campaign trail. Americans apparently don't need to hear about how great they are anymore. Which is welcome news. But it shouldn't obscure another fact: America was made by the people who worked so that the Lords and Ladies in Jane Austen novels could have their lovely parties, and the national memory has not forgotten the crumminess of that deal. Atlantic City was a place with a lot of hypocrisy, but at least everybody knew the score. It helps to know the dark and ugly cost of beauty if you're trying to build a shining city on a hill.
walk of shame imo
Season 4 will include George Pelecanos (YEAH) and Dennis Lehane (alright) as executive producer and writer respectively!