HALLIE EPHRON: Okay, I admit it. I want Louis Bayard’s gig.
No I cannot write anything like his riveting literary historical thrillers (The Pale Blue Eye, Roosevelt’s Beast). But oh would I love to take a crack at dishing on Downton Abbey, as Lou does writing the recaps for the New York Times Artsbeat section.
For me, the fun of watching a new episode of Downton continues the next morning when I settle at my computer and pull up Lou’s often hilarious, cheeky take on it. (I also read Tom and Lorenzo and move on to the Wall Street Journal’s Sarene Leeds.) Bliss.
So when I met Lou at a writing conference, I was already a huge fan. I told him I was an avid reader of his Downton columns and he gave me a brief deer-in-the-headlights look. He said it was one of the hardest things he’d ever taken on because of the fans.
They are… he searched for the word… enthusiastic. As in really paying attention and eager to zing his missteps.
So today I welcome Lou to Jungle Red and ask him to share: What made you realize how seriously fans were taking Downton?
LOUIS BAYARD: I think the big epiphany for me was what I now like to call the Great Buttock Controversy of ’15.
In Episode 6, the evil Barrow revealed that, thanks to a quack cure he’d been ingesting, he now had an abscess on his hindquarters. We got the briefest flash of the thing, which I later recalled as being on his left cheek.
Within minutes of the blog going live, a swarm of commenters had risen up to flag my error—which, in turn, produced one of the more amusing corrections in the Times’ recent history.
I remember thinking that if “Downton” fans were scrutinizing Barrow’s tuchis this intensely, I’d really have to watch my step.
HALLIE: A new version of turning the other cheek? What else surprised you about fan reactions?
LOU: I was initially concerned because, while I’m very fond of the show, I also have a lot of fun with it. And I learned very quickly that “Downton” fans are pretty much on the same page.
They’re not at all pious. They know this is a show with gorgeous production values and superb actors, but they also know it’s very much a soap opera, which means it’s silly and excessive and sometimes kind of dull, and they watch it anyway and not in spite of its flaws but almost because.
So from the start, I abandoned any pretense that this was a plausible show, and I just got down to brass tacks. What ridiculous thing happened? What hilarious line came out of Maggie Smith’s mouth? What do you think of Mary’s dress?
And the viewers—the Abbots, as I like to call them—were ready to answer in kind. So it’s been great fun.
HALLIE: I love that you address us as Abbots. As in your last column that begins: "Oh, Abbots. It can’t be over, can it?"
I confess, this season has made me a little crabby. I’m thoroughly sick of drippy Lady Edith (am I the only one who thinks Marigold is scary looking?) and if Mrs. Bates hangs for killing Mr. Green, it won’t be soon enough. Do you agree?
LOU: Well, Edith, she needs to get her ass back to London and stay there for the duration. No more Sunday suppers with the folks. I’m counting on her to build Gregson’s business into a publishing empire and have affairs with Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.
Marigold? I can only believe she’s on some kind of Prozac precursor. Nothing else explains her weird serenity as she’s lateraled from parent to parent.
As for the Mr. Green storyline, there was a general consensus that it was both ridiculously protracted and innately absurd: a massive, two-year-long manhunt waged on behalf of somebody’s valet. I think even Julian Fellowes recognized it because, in that final episode, he did a lot of quickstepping to spring Anna from the slammer and open the door to Bates’ return.
The weird part is that I’m still not sure, after all this time, how Mr. Green died. Are you, Hallie? Do you even care?
HALLIE: Oh my. You know, I do care. Maybe it’s because I write mystery novels.
I hope it’s O’Brien. I’d love to see her come back.
Who was your favorite character this season and which of the ones who’ve gone away do you miss?
LOU: I was quite enchanted with Mabel Lane Fox, the jilted girlfriend of Lord Gillingham who managed to reclaim his affections over the course of the season. She was smart and fun and edgy and brought some needed spark to things.
I also had a soft spot for Lady Sinderby, who deserves a better husband.
Other than Mabel, I don’t miss any of the characters who’ve gone away. Tom Branson had outlived his narrative usefulness by one or two seasons. Lady Rose (I presume she’s going) was just pretty and sweet and flawlessly complected. I do hope her in-laws stick around, though.
HALLIE: Do you think Maggie Smith writes any of her own lines?
LOU: I think she’s such a great actress she gives that impression. But since I credit Baron Fellowes for the bad stuff, I’ve got to credit him for the good, too.
HALLIE: Have you spotted any historical inaccuracies in the series? Historical storytelling is, after all, your forte.
LOU: Oh, I leave that stuff to the commenters. There’s always somebody, isn’t there? “She would never have used that expression! They would never have had those lights on the Christmas tree!”
Personally, I think the production team does a great job of conveying the period, and that’s all I ever try to do in my work. Verisimilitude is important, but to me, the story takes precedence over everything.
I remember getting a letter from a lady who’d read MR. TIMOTHY. She very much wanted me to know that poinsettias would not have been present in English drawing rooms by 1842. My response was some polite version of “Yeah, I knew that, but it didn’t really bother me.” I just wanted those poinsettias there—they were dead, by the way—and I didn’t think they would be disruptive for 99.9 percent of readers.
My mantra in these cases is: It’s fiction.
HALLIE: So, gentle readers, what do you want to know about Downton and its fandom? Which new characters do you love and who won't you miss.
And most of all, who killed Mr. Green?
Louis Bayard has been praised as a master of the historical thriller. Kirkus called his THE PALE BLUE EYE a “literary tour de force” – in it he turns Edgar Allen Poe into a literary character and the book was nominated for the Edgar Award – how meta is that? In his latest, ROOSEVELT’S BEAST, he reimagines an ill-fated Amazon expedition that Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit.