So I’ve got a bit of thing for British period dramas, and it’s not just my crazy love for Downton Abbey. Be it on television or in cinema, it doesn’t matter to me — Godsford Park, A Room with a View, Howard’s End, or Enchanted April — I am all over that!
It’s weird because... I’m not an anglophile. Though I’m sure they’re OK people, I couldn’t give a damn about Kate Middleton and Prince William. And though I would love to travel to other cities, London has never been high up on my list of places to visit. (Cold, wet places make my hair poofy. Yes, I’m being flippant, but you get my drift.) Another thing that’s weird about my obsession with British period dramas is that I could never really warm up to American soap operas, but you suddenly throw in an English estate, elbow-high white gloves, and Maggie Smith and I’m glued to the television screen.
My soap-watching elders tried their best to convert me to the world of The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless — making me sit through four hours’ worth of episodes when I would come to visit them, or reading from the Soap Opera Digest VERY LOUDLY like they were reading a column from The New York Times: “Shell, you gotta hear this one!” But between the bucknutty storylines (Does anyone else remember when Reva Shayne of Guiding Light had it out with her homicidal clone, Dolly? Yes, Dolly — named after the world’s first cloned sheep) and the quota of three perfunctory sex scenes per episode, American soaps just didn’t work for me.
Now I wouldn’t say that British dramas are more intellectual because some of their plotlines can get downright crazy too, but the setting, historic context, and clipped British accents tend to lend the stories more weight.
So, with all that being said, when I read that Tyler Perry was working on The Have and the Have Nots, his own version of Downton Abbey/Upstairs Downstairs for the OWN network, I instantly did the WTF face. Why is this man touching my baby?!?!
I know Tyler Perry is kind of a polarizing figure in the black community. First, let me say that I don’t begrudge him for getting his hustle on. I admire that he made his way from the church circuit to being one of the most powerful producers/directors/writers in Hollywood. And he seems to help keep many of the black actors in Hollywood (and Kim Kardashian) gainfully employed, so… pat on the back for that one, too. But let’s just say — with the exception of maybe a couple of his movies — I’m not a big fan of his work. If my relatives make me sit through another Madea movie after Thanksgiving dinner, I… am… going… to… SCREAM!
Also, the tricky part Perry may face bringing the Downton Abbey formula into a more modern, American version is that when you switch the context and the setting, you lose some of the old themes and introduce new ones that could change the dynamics. Many of these period dramas are set at the turn of the century, usually during or right after World War I or World War II, when British society was going through social upheaval. The old rules of classism were breaking down. The gentry who were already holding on to their status and wealth by a thread were losing their elitist grip on society even more. Plus, the rowdy Americans were coming!
Now put those same stories in a 1950s or 1960s America and maybe even add a racial element and it turns into a whole different drama. Racial divides in America back then were certainly less transient than class lines in Britain, and the stakes for breaking those barriers were a lot higher. The utter obliviousness and the little jibes the British lords and ladies make about the lower class can be amusing in Downton Abbey, but have a white American family do the same damn thing to their poor black maid and it suddenly isn’t funny anymore.
But I know… I know I’m rushing to conclusions. So far, the details on Perry’s adaption have been pretty vague. According to articles, the show “will follow the lives of a rich family, the Cryers, and their impoverished maid, Hanna.” For now I’ll hold back judgment and see what Perry has to offer. And you never know — maybe I could add it to my list of television crack… just as long as it doesn’t come on at the same time as Downton Abbey.
- Black Girl Nerds contributor, Shelly Ellis