Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Talking Down to the Audience

I've been watching the new miniseries "Downton Abbey" on "Masterpiece" on PBS.† Like most Americans, I find many British customs, slang phrases, etc. a bit puzzling, and I appreciate screenwriters who can explain unfamiliar situations by working cultural references into conversations naturally, without resorting to stilted or out-of-place dialog. On the other hand, I get irritated with screenwriters who realize that they need to explain something to a potentially clueless audience (in this case, Americans, and probably also young Brits to whom the Victorian and Edwardian eras seem as distant as the Paleozoic), but just plop explanations in clumsily. Would the housekeeper of an English manor house in 1913 really need to tell her friends that cooks and housekeepers are always addressed as "Mrs." whether they're married or not?

The dialog is quite good in spots, though:
Lady Grantham (played by the always-awesome Dame Maggie Smith): "You are quite wonderful, the way you see room for improvement wherever you look. I never knew such reforming zeal."
Mrs. Crawley: "I take that as a compliment."
Lady Grantham: "I must have said it wrong."
† "Masterpiece" was formerly known as "Masterpiece Theater," and that's how I still think of it. It's been merged with the "Mystery" series and contemporary dramas have been added, so depending on whether the fare is a period piece, a mystery—which might also be a period piece, like a dramatization of an Agatha Christie book—or a contemporary work, the time slot is billed as "Masterpiece Classic," "Masterpiece Mystery," or "Masterpiece Contemporary."

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