Monday, August 26, 2013

Midcult PBS

It was pledge week on PBS, and last night they were flogging Dowton Abbey. The voiceover pledge-driver described the series in this way: “It really is smart TV, but as The New Yorker says —”

And here is the New Yorker sentence that PBS then paraphrased:

the British series, about the aristocratic Crawley family and their titular home, goes down so easily that it’s a bit like scarfing handfuls of caramel corn while swigging champagne.
I think the announcer may have changed scarfing and swigging to eating and drinking.

Dwight Macdonald would have appreciated Downton Abbey as a perfect example of what he called “Midcult”:
A whole middle culture has come into existence and it threatens to absorb both its parents. This intermediate form — let us call it Midcult — has the essential qualities of Masscult — the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity — but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf. In Masscult the trick is plain — to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.

The enemy outside the walls is easy to distinguish. It is its ambiguity that makes Midcult alarming. For it presents itself as part of High Culture. Not that coterie stuff, nothing snobbish inbred so-called intellectuals who are only talking to themselves. Rather the great vital mainstream, wide and clear though perhaps not so deep.

“Masscult and Midcult” (1960)
Funny: in a post earlier this year, I described Downton Abbey as “about as deep as a paper plate.”

Smart but goes down easy; goes down easy but smart: that’s a perfect way to understand Midcult.

Related reading
A handful of Downton Abbey posts

[Macdonald’s essay can be found in Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain (New York Review Books, 2011).]

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