Now that Downton Abbey has fulfilled its second season run here in North America, I grieve its passing. Not a big TV watcher to begin with, I, like innumerable other women, am a sucker for a period drama laced with the promise of some suppressed sexual tension. None of the Dickensian woe and STDs, only happy endings delivered after a tolerable amount of angst for me, please. Surprisingly, every Sunday night I made time for this extremely well received show, with its ups and downs, and its ridiculous plot devices.
Now that it’s finished, I find myself feeling a little lost. Where will I get my fix of will they/won’t they now if not from Lady Mary and Cousin Matthew? Where will I watch as stalwart hearts such as Anna and Mr. Bates come together only to be torn apart again and again? Certainly I won’t get such needs met in shows like New Girl or films like The Vow. I cringe at the saccharine (although sometimes hilarious) love pains of these characters. They just don’t do it for me like Downton or any Austen or Bronte can. This led me to ask myself, well, why? If love is a universal and timeless subject, shouldn’t I enjoy all these familiar stories of love, loss, and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks? Maybe it is because I don’t believe in modern romance. Or at least, I remain unconvinced that it exists.
I don’t consider myself a big romantic, as my cynicism and inherent pragmatism bludgeon any tender sympathies harbored towards star-crossed lovers to death. Even as a kid, I loved Disney cornerstones like Beauty and the Beast, Pocahantas, and especially, The Little Mermaid, but I would hide my eyes or leave the room during kissing scenes. I to this day still feel uncomfortable during the musical number “Kiss the Girl” in TLM.
Then, in my formative teen years, I discovered the unpretentious and subtle love of the Austen world and was hooked. It is obvious that I wasn’t the only one taken in by the siren song of the period drama. I loved both Josh Hartnett and Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor (oh God, I was so naïve) and created impervious Mary Jane characters who bore a striking resemblance to me (only skinnier) to win the heart of fair Legolas. And yet, I can’t stand any of these actors as romantic leads in contemporary stories. 40 Days and 40 Nights? Give me a fucking break. I saw it when I was 15 and thought exactly that. So what gives? Why do I feel like the love between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett is more convincing than say the love of Rachel and Ross?
It comes down to conflict.
In modern romance there are no conflicts such as those found in period pieces. Mom thinks your girl is a gold digger? You get a prenup. Hubby is an alcoholic, an abusive dick? You divorce the shit out of him. Get caught in flagrante delicto with a married man? Sell the videotape and get your own reality TV show! The very stuff of ruin and damnation have pretty much been written out of contemporary life. Not so in 19th century England. When you married that abusive douchebag, it was until he hopefully got shot dead in a duel. That gold digger mom warned you about? She runs off with a Nabob to India and sends you to debtor’s prison.
The conflicts that threaten our romantic heroes and heroines in period dramas are very real and very believable, whether they are truly realistic or not. For example, *SPOILER ALERT* Lady Mary’s one time lover, diplomat Mr. Pamuk dying in her bed? Ridiculous (although, it’s based on a true event), but it had me on the edge of my seat. Rewrite this plot in a contemporary setting, and CSI will have figured out that he died of an aneurism and was moved back to his room, but was really in Lady Mary’s! This lack of true romantic roadblocks in contemporary society has forced writers to move from conflicts born of social restrictions to increasingly ridiculous situational hijinks. This explains the popularity of rom-coms. Just think of the bizarre plots and gimmicks of any chick flick that stars Matthew McConaughey. Or Sandra Bullock. Or Ryan Reynolds. This lack of conflict has also resulted in the popularization of paranormal romance. Things get real angsty when your sparkly boyfriend doesn’t know if he wants to fuck you or eat you.
I find it ironic that magic and the absurd are the things that are bringing romance back to the modern world. This is the part where I talk about how the Internet is killing love. But, to be honest, the construct of romantic love is just that, a construct. And while at once story telling and Valentine’s Day and DeBeers are telling us it exists, a few clicks of a mouse is sort of ruining the illusion we’ve been taught to cherish. Finding the love of your life through a compatibility quiz is not as harrowing as having him save you from a mustachioed villain who tied you to the train tracks.
Conflicts make for good story-telling. It’s not as if soul-mates don’t exist, but meeting them online, dating for a few months, getting a mortgage, raising some well adjusted kids, and dying within two months of each other at the ripe old age of 91 and 92 doesn’t sound very riveting. It’s just not the stuff that a 21 year old sophomore in university wants to watch with her bff and a tub of ice cream after her boyfriend broke up with her.