This heavily promoted hit Netflix series is one of the silliest things I have seen in a long time.
I can just imagine how the pitch for this idea went. The creators realized that there seems to be an inexhaustible appetite among American audiences for shows about the bygone days of the English aristocracy with the action taking place in stately mansions, as can be seen from the immense popularity of earlier shows like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. This series cranks that all up to 11. The entire series take place in the fanciest of castles and homes and beautiful parks and other outdoor settings with everyone, and I mean everyone, including the servants, dressed in the finest clothes. There are no big name stars in the show and I figured this must be because they spent most of the budget on costumes. The entire time of people is spent gossiping about each other and promenading in gardens or attending the balls that seem to occur every night. Apparently these events require women to wear a new outfit each time.
Poor people are never seen. The servants are all shown as faithful retainers who are happy with their lot. In the entire eight one-hour episodes, there were a few brief scenes set in a picturesque English village with quaint villagers milling about and there were about two minutes spent in a London working class area that one young woman was taken to to show what would happen to her if she did not make a ‘good’ marriage. There was no attempt to deal with social issues like class distinctions or poverty or wars, though there were a few feeble attempts at introducing feminist sentiments and there was a sympathetic gay character to explain how dangerous life was for them in those times to be open about their sexuality. It seemed rather a forced attempt to give the show some semblance of social consciousness and not what it really was, an entire exercise in escapist fantasy.
As for the story, it was preposterous. Although the leading couple of Daphne and Simon were very attractive to look at, their storyline was ridiculous when it was not boring. More interesting were some of the subsidiary characters such as Daphne’s sister Eloise, Eloise’s friend Penelope, and Simon’s aunt Lady Danbury. There were also several brutal scenes of bare-knuckle prize-fighting, the function of which I could not quite figure out. Even there, Simon’s face was completely unmarked by the repeated hits it took in the ring while the blows he gave to a boorish unwanted suitor of Daphne left the latter’s face like an auto wreck.
It is obvious that I am not the target audience for this show and I realized that fairly soon into it. So why did I watch it through to the end? It is because there was one storyline that intrigued me and that was learning the secret identity of the author of a society scandal sheet that everyone read. She wrote under the pseudonym of Lady Whistledown and also provided the voiceover narration, done by Julie Andrews. I have always been a sucker for a whodunnit mysteries and amused myself trying to guess who she was. I got it right even though it was, like everything else, highly implausible.
Also at the beginning, I was intrigued by what I thought was a bold attempt at color-blind casting. Although the period is set around 1800, the queen consort Charlotte is Black and the lords and ladies are a good mix of white and people of color. It was pretty easy to get used to having actors of color play characters who would have been white. But then suddenly in the fourth episode, the Duke of Hastings and his aunt Lady Danbury, both of whom are Black, have a conversation in which it is revealed that it was only when King George III married Charlotte that everything suddenly changed and even aristocrats could be people of color. So far from becoming a bold effort at color-blind casting that showed how people of any color could play people of any color, this series became an alternative history, and a tortured one at that, in which actors were cast according to the color of their character, which I found much less interesting.
For alternative histories to work, one has to switch a basic idea and then change the other parts of history to be consistent with it. Many of the aristocrats are so because of heredity. Having a king marry a queen of color would not change their lineages unless that happened far back in time and society started integrating then, a process that would take centuries to show its effects. King George III and Queen Charlotte are actual historical figures and there had been unsubstantiated rumors that Charlotte had African ancestry. The writers had seized on this and used it as the starting point for their alternative history. That is fine. What is problematic is to act as if that could change within one generation the entire color spectrum of English aristocracy and have it become seamlessly integrated. By the time this utterly implausible and preposterous twist was introduced, I was too much into trying to figure out who Lady Whistledown was to stop watching, which was why I found the story of Eloise and Penelope more interesting, since Eloise was on a quest to identify her, looking for clues everywhere.
The series did solve one puzzle for me. I have often wondered what the hell these aristocrats did all day. They did not work, since the poor serfs are the ones who did all the work and were forced to give most of their earnings to their masters to enable the wealthy to live extravagantly opulent lives, sort of like today. The aristocrats had a bunch of servants who took care of all their daily needs, however mundane. So how did they occupy their time? I now think that they were all practicing dancing. In the show, there seem to be balls pretty much all the time in which people engage in a variety of complex dances that require fancy steps and circling around and changing partners. It is similar to square dancing except with no caller up front constantly cuing people as to what to do. It seems to require more precision than for synchronized swimming at the Olympics. One false move, such as turning left when one should turn right, could send everyone crashing to the ground like dominos. And yet, as soon as the music strikes up, they all line up in formation and dance flawlessly. That must require intense daily practice, though the show does not show that.
Here’s the trailer.