Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Louis Bayard: Dishing on Downton for the NY Times

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.

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?

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?

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.


  1. So interesting to hear from someone who writes the recaps . . . .

  2. I'm thrilled to see you here, Louis. I'm a diehard Abbot, and love your recaps! I confess that I cheat around and read other reviewers, too. Downton's like crack. One fix is not enough to sustain you for a whole week between episodes.

    For reasons I don't understand and also don't question, my suspension of disbelief for this show is so high, it's nonexistent and, honestly, the post-show dishing is more fun that the actual program. Thanks for being part of that!

  3. I agree, Ramona. Like crack... or what I assume crack is like.

    I wonder if it takes some of the fun out of watching if you know you have to write a recap. (I think about that when I eat a great restaurant meal... would it be as much fun if I were reviewing the restaurant?)

  4. I stopped watching Downton Abbey after Matthew was killed off! I still think the actor could have been replaced with someone else, just like on the daytime soaps. I've been following the Washington Post recaps and I find them to be hilarious! I started reading the on-line version before a presidential election a long time ago, and stumbled across the Downton recaps just this past winter. Now I'll need to look for yours, too, Louis!

  5. I love Downton and Louis' recaps. I already miss it, even though this last season was not my favorite. All that Mr. Green stuff and the Russians just bored me to tears.

    I did secretly wish that Mrs. Hughes had killed Mr. Green, but I don't think she would have been able to stand by and let Anna or Bates take the blame, so I now doubt that is a possibility. At this point, I don't think we'll ever know.

    Rumors of only one more season sadden me, but at the same time, I know that Julian Fellows will move on to something else great and grand.

  6. Kristopher: MRS. HUGHES? Staggered. Taking in the possibility.

  7. Welcome, Louis! I absolutely love your column and it's a treat to have you here.

    O'Brian as the murderer? I have to admit, I never thought of that... But it's good, really good.

    Re: poinsettias — it's reassuring to know I'm not the only author that gets the, er—shall we say—_enthused_ emails from those readers concerned with historicity.

  8. Also, MRS. HUGHES as the murderer? Kristopher, my brain is trying to take that in....

  9. Not, Mrs. Hughes as a murderer. Mrs. Hughes as a vigilante, making sure that awful, evil man never hurt anyone else.

    It could have been an accidental killing, while trying to confront him about how horrible he was and how she was going to turn him in to the police and then...oops, he fell of the platform.

  10. I keep feeling I need to watch this show, just so I'm in tune with others. Then I look at it, all the books I want to read, and the other TV I watch and say, "Well, never mind."

  11. This is such fun! I never read wrap-ups because we don't watch in real time, but going to fix that!

    I agree Hallie, so very tired of sniveling Edith. And Marigold is a zombie child...and Mary's gotten more shallow and snarky lately, don't you think?

  12. Hmm. Trying to wrap my mind around Mrs. H as vigilante rapist killer. I guess anything's possible in the fevered imagination of Baron Fellowes. At any rate, I think he's dropped this plot thread for good, so it may be time for some doughty mystery writer to solve the case once and for all. Just' sayin'....

  13. Anna killed him, of course. If she's guilty, that's a good story! Right?

    And Lou, tell the names you suggested for Anna and Bates' baby!

  14. I love Mary, sorry. (Sorry, Ramona.) "Golly, that's a classy chariot!"

    And the guy who plays whats his name is so much handsomer on DA than on The Good Wife.

    And see, they got Rose and Atticus (!) out of England before the Nazis.

  15. What about Miss Baxter for the Green murder? She was set up by someone in service. Could have been Green.

  16. Ah, but now we have all these characters heading to America in time for the stock market crash.

  17. I enjoyed this interview and thank you, Louis Bayard. Love your Times columns on Downton, too. Oooh, O'Brien as Greens killer? What a surprising and delightful idea! I fear this story line has been dropped, though, and we are never going to find out. It was a flimsy and (eventually) boring story line though. Yes, I'm tired of Edith too. Every time it looks like she is growing up and growing a spine...she doesn't. I've enjoyed Rose growing up from a bird-brain teen and she's kind of a breath of fresh air. (Plus I was lucky enough to see the actor who plays her father onstage! In Stratford! My very first trip anywhere! We were both much younger.) I love the way Violet and Mrs. Crawley have become friends. Very real and very touching.And hard to explain but I do sort of like Mary.

  18. I love the Violet/Mrs. Crawley friendship, too. Very sweet and vinegary.

    Yes, war and the stock market crash loom. One more season: sniff.

  19. Abbotts! Oh, what fun! I thought the writers missed an interesting opportunity early on with the Green story line, to bring in a series of rape victims and show a pattern of behavior, with the killer another victim or her employer. And lots of missed opportunities with Edith, too -- I'd have liked to see her become the model of the young woman who steps into the male business world and thrives. (Mentally rewriting another's work -- occupational hazard and self-training tool!)

  20. Hi Louis! So great to see you here!

    I have to admit I've been a slacker on Downton the last couple of seasons. I think I made it through the first four episodes this year. I was so aggravated with the Mr. Green plot line, and SO wanted to smack Lady Edith. (And what's with Tom getting all chubby on us?)

    But maybe Baron Fellowes is saving the best for last, and Edith will redeem herself in the last season.

    Or we'll find out that Marigold is really The Bad Seed:-)

  21. So I guess this is the point where I confess to never having watched an episode of Downton. But I know what you mean about fans. Doesn't matter what show/book, they can be downright obsessive and jump on the smallest error, which can be good or bad.

  22. Mark... and also the trend of recapping shows online after they've run. I go read about THE GOOD WIFE after I've watched an episode. It's the gift that keeps giving... and even if in a tiny way captures the communal feeling of watching a movie with a crowd.

  23. Hi Louis--as a fellow disher on Downton (on my Facebook page every Monday where I religiously read all 300 comments) I agree with everything you've said. Especially the lights on the Christmas tree! Probably candles. But if electric tree lights had been invented they would be anemic little things and there would have been one string of them--one light per yard of tree (and I've never seen a US type tree in England either)

    And Mr. Green--the prosecution has no case. There was nobody who saw Anna push him. her hand print is not in the middle of his back. If she'd been confident and defiant and said prove it they'd have backed down.

  24. Two more things-
    1-Where is Louis' write up on the final season 5 episode, the Christmas special? I am thrilled that he commented on the fund raiser show. It was marvelous!

    2-I'm trying to think how we can have Marigold have murdered Mr. Greene. Stay with me here. She is so warped from being switched from one family situation to another, that by the time she is 10+ she snaps. She bloody tired of this never ending Mr. Greene murder (seems like it could easily continue for another 10 years at this rate) distracting everyone. So, she somehow time travels back to the murder time and...? Makes sure he's dead and there is clear evidence of someone doing it? Not clear here, but it suits her behavior and looks.

  25. Louis, I'm so glad that you're here on my favorite writers' blog today. I met you at the Virginia Festival of the Books last year, was already a fan of your books, and I've followed your Downton Abbey critiques with glee. I also follow you on FB. You are just so interesting and witty and deliciously snarky (at times). Loved The Black Tower, The Pale Blue Eye, and Roosevelt's Beast. I own, but haven't gotten to yet, Mr. Timothy and The School of Night. There is no acceptable excuse for not having read them yet, so I won't make one. Also, I want to read the articles posted on your Web page.

    I had high hopes for Edith when it looked like she was coming out of her whiny personality, but this season saw her revert to the Edith we all would love to see just disappear. And, the Mr. Green story line was torture this season. I hate to admit that I have gotten to the point with Downton that I don't much care what happens to the Crawley family main characters and care much more about the supporting characters, such as Daisy, Mrs. Hughes, Ms. Patmore, Violet, and Isobel. I really think that it's time for the series to end.

  26. Libby Dodd: Brava! Star Trek meets Downton Abbey!

  27. We adore Lady Mary...for obvious reasons...but S5 was trying. Worst is the on-going Bates-prison saga. We sometimes think Lord Fellowes can't admit a plot is bad, so he drags things out as if given enough time he can prove it really is a good plot. Granny would tell him: You're being a "defeatist, dear. It's very middle class."

    We miss Sunday Downton and Monday morning recaps during the off season! We don't post episode recaps, but instead live snark *cough* tweet the episodes.

    ^^ @L_MarysEyebrows on Twitter

  28. Oh, Lady Mary's Eyebrows! Will check you out for Season 6.

  29. I got fan fever and typed up the beginnings of a Branson in Boston story, and realized that he is hopelessly trapped and will have to come back to Downton, because he won't fit in with his Irish relatives in Boston at all, and even if he would, Sybbie wouldn't. And he's going to wind up with Mrs. Levenson running the show, making sure her great grandchild is living in decent circumstances, and ultimately, he's going to come back to Downton, not to see the new houses in the village, but because he's less a fish out of water there than anywhere else.

    (I can't help it; if you take a character through his logical steps, he's going to have a nanny with him for Sybbie, he's going to have to have a room for the nanny, he's going to have had to cross in First Class with the child and her nanny in tow, and anyone who has raised a kid knows that strange food-- whether at Tom's cousin's table or in Boston proper-- is going to cause Fussy Eater syndrome, and Ivy's going to wind up cooking for him. So he may wind up batching it with Harold.)

    By the way, 1925 marked the most crooked election in Boston history, and that's going some. And Sybbie is approximately the age of Eunice and Kick Kennedy, in case they wind up behind lace curtains in Brookline.)

    Did I ever mention I cut my fiction teeth writing Star Trek fan fic which is what got me my first book contract? And I've actually written most of this because I HAD to (stories will OUT).

  30. Ellen, I'm sure you're not the only one who thinks there should be spin offs. Thinking: who would I like to follow AFTER downton? Mrs. Hughes & Mr. Carson! Running a B&B and becoming amateur sleuths not far from St. Mary Meade?

  31. Hallie, We hope you will join Us for the live tweet for Downton S6. There's a ton of people that participate and it's a lot of fun! ^^

  32. Oh my, some of those answers are hilarious.