Friday, February 17, 2012

Not Down with Downton Anymore

If you are one of the many viewers who will get the sads when Downton Abbey wraps up season two this Sunday, please read on! I’m about to rain on your parade. Last week’s episode of the PBS series was my last. I could not even bring myself to watch the entire show. I’ve finally—sadly—accepted that it is but an inferior copy of Upstairs, Downstairs (available from Netflix). The script conveniently favors the success of the beloved characters. Matthew Crawley miraculously walks thanks to an initial misdiagnosis! No word yet on his third, smaller leg, but given the trajectory of the show, we’ll be subjected to its glorious revival in the finale, tentatively titled “A Very Special Downton Christmas: Boners for Each and Evr’y One.” His milquetoast fiancée Lavinia fortuitiously succumbs to the Spanish flu, shortly after delivering a speech in which she nobly relinquishes all rights to her betrothed. Now the path is cleared for Matthew to marry his equally boring true love, Lady Mary. If there’s one thing I absolutely detest in art, it’s life’s messier parts neatly tied in a bow.
Read all about it: My dick works!

We must not forget the tepid relationship between youngest Grantham sister Sybil and the family’s Irish republican driver Tom Branson. Each episode she furtively absconds to the garage in her dopey nurse’s uniform or evening finery, ostensibly to check on the current state of motoring at Downton: “So…is everything with the car working okay? Yes? Brilliant! Carry on.” At least Matthew and Mary have copped a few feels, but I’m not feeling the love between the driver and the dullard. Are they truly longing for each other teddibly from behind class lines? If yes, the writers haven’t convinced me. Their passion is about as exciting as an oil change, to keep the garage theme going. I’ll be very pleasantly surprised if anything—anything!—unpleasant happens to the rest of the characters. Sorry if I’m raining on your Downtown Abbey parade, but seriously? You could do much better. Next week I will back up my advice with brief reviews of TV shows I deem great. In the meantime, instead of watching Downton, get yourself to the library to take out one of these engaging young adult titles.

Amor and Summer Secrets (Diana Rodriguez Wallach, 2008, Kensington). Critics praise Wallach’s Amor series for its humor, honesty, and engaging story lines that ring true with teenage readers. Being a hybrid myself, I appreciated the main character’s dual Puerto Rican and Polish heritage. In the first book of the series, 15-year-old Mariana Ruiz reluctantly finds herself visiting distant Puerto Rican relatives over summer vacation. In spite of the fact that she’s determined to have a bad time, Wallach’s anti-heroine embraces her heritage while indulging in a budding summer romance. She forges a tentative friendship with her doppelganger cousin, Lilly as she helps plan the girl’s quinceanera. Mariana’s refreshing self-awareness carries her through the family dramas she never dreamed of encountering.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World (E.L. Konigsburg, 2007, Atheneum).
E.L. Konigsburg writes quirky, and she does it very well. I’ve enjoyed her work since I discovered From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a young reader. Her characters inhabit the fringes of their respective societies. Her oddballs are a welcome change from the usual gaggle of entitled prep school bitches and boys with Justin Beiber bangs. Konigsburg’s kids are more likely to pursue their passions while learning something about life in the process. Being popular is the last thing on their minds. This time, Amedeo Kaplan is desperate to make an important discovery. In aid of this goal he tolerates the strange requests of one Mrs. Zender, his eccentric new neighbor with a storied but faded past. He attaches himself to classmate William Wilcox, whose mother is arranging to sell Mrs. Zender’s possessions in an estate sale. Amedeo’s discovery dredges up the distant past in ways none of the characters could have anticipated or, in the case of some, wanted. Konigsburg weaves a suspenseful mystery as the complex natures of her characters unravel.

Island (Book One: Shipwreck. Gordon Korman, 2001, Scholastic). In Korman’s first adventure novel, he chronicles the adventures of six errant teenagers sentenced to a sailing trip as a means to reform their characters.  Manning a sailboat on the Pacific Ocean initially appears a fate worse than juvenile detention, but Luke, J.J., Will, Lyssa, Charla, and Ian make the most of it. Just as they are getting used to the seafaring life under the leadership of one steady captain and a semi-psychotic first mate (the aptly named Mr. Ratford), the boat runs into rough—and then rougher—seas. Will they all survive? Will a school of friendly dolphins come to their aid, or will an angry Tiger shark bite their legs off? I for one cannot wait to find out. Two more books complete the Island series: Survival and Escape.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Them’s Fightin’ Words: Headed for a Downton Abbey Smackdown

Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever throws down the gauntlet in his less than praiseworthy review of Downton Abbey season two. Whether the smackdown will take place on Downton Green or in a nearby smelly cow pasture remains to be seen. Patriarch Colonel Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is wearing his fake uniform (he’s too old to fight in the Great War), albeit snugly, with fisticuffs raised to defend his TV family’s honor.
Although Stuever enjoyed the first season, he laments that Downton now represents “a house full of fascinating people with not nearly enough to do, all caught in a loop of weak storylines that circle round but never fully propel.” True. The characters’ main preoccupations are receiving distressing letters; complaining about the convalescing soldiers whom they agreed to house; and vying for power—who is in charge of the kitchen staff, anyway? They seem to do as they please.
“Midway along, you’ll get the sneaking suspicion that Fellowes [the series' creator & writer] adores his characters far too much to let anything of real consequence happen to them.”
It’s true. So far, all the really bad stuff has happened to supporting characters. Poor William the footman, for example, succumbed to his war injuries in the last episode, whereas Lady Mary's inexplicable love interest Matthew Crawley merely sustained a major spinal injury and broken penis.
Steuver can be funny in his criticism: “One by one, the characters return in the opening episode in a way that feels as if they’ll be greeted upon entry by Lenny-and-Squiggy-style applause.”
 But he does need to get out of the house more often: “At one point, I was transfixed by the lace pattern on the bib of a housemaid’s apron.” My dad summed it up best: “I have no empathy for any of these people.”
Steuver concludes that “To enjoy 'Downton Abbey' is to vicariously luxuriate in their luxuriating…” In sum, enjoy the period costumes and setting, because the writing is so-so and the characters are one-dimensional. Don’t be surprised if Stuever finds himself on the receiving end of some rather nasty letters—sealed with wax, naturally—from the show’s legions of rabid fans.

Who says you have to eat healthy to eat local? Not I. Don’t believe those people; they are snobs. You do not have to go to a farmer’s market or belong to a CSA (community-supported agriculture). Although I have nothing against turnips, sometimes a chemically laden baked good hits the spot. Several homegrown companies offer treats you with which you can supplement your vegetable quota: Tastycake Baking Company (Philadelphia), Hershey’s (Hershey, PA), and Herr’s (Nottingham, PA), for example. But are they all equally yummy? According to one of my fourth-grade students (Mr. X) and I, the answer is decidedly no.
I selected three delicacies for us to sample: milk chocolate (Hershey’s vs. Cadbury); plain potato chips (Herr’s vs. Lays); and chocolate-covered donuts (Entenmann's vs. Tastycake). Turns out my student and I both have refined palates. The results: Hershey’s beat Cadbury. Hershey’s was super “chocolatey” and “smooth but not shiny.” Cadbury’s Dairy, on the other hand, was “shiny” and “creamy” but, according to my student, “not chocolatey enough.”
The Lays chips won because one: Mr. X ate all of them. And two, they had more flavor. We both appreciated the way some of the chips “curled over like a blanket,” as well as the grease they left on our fingers. Herr’s was dry and tasteless in comparison.
The donuts were the best part of the test. Tastycake does not make full-sized donuts, only donettes, so the average-sized Entenmann’s donuts were matched against their baby counterparts. No matter! Once more, local triumphed: the Tastycake donettes were chocolatey on the outside. The cake inside was dry, whereas Entenmann’s was moister inside but the waxy chocolate lacked flavor. You would think moist is good, but in this case it was faintly redolent of orange. As Mr. X pointed out, "You don't expect your chocolate donut to taste like an orange." Touché, Mr. X, touché.