You might wonder why I’m writing about the PBS television show Downton Abbey. Well, one thing you probably don’t know about me is that I am a huge history nerd. I also love character-driven dramas that aren’t overly melodramatic. Plus, Downton Abbey has invaded pop culture. Don’t believe me? Fine, I’ll just leave this here then…
The first season of Downton Abbey begins in 1912, with the second covering the timeframe from 1916 to early 1920. The first episodes begin with the residents of Downton Abbey learning of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Their disbelief turns to shock as they learn that Patrick Crawley, a cousin set to inherit Downton and marry eldest daughter Mary, had drowned in the disaster.
Things start to spiral out of control as scandal threatens the family. Mary, a spoiled bitch for most of the first season, gets caught sleeping with a foreign visitor. If word got out about it, she would be unable to find a husband in the aristocracy. It’s a plot line that runs throughout the first and second season. It’s also hilarious how the whole thing plays out.
The reason why Downton Abbey is so great is the characters. You have the Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, the patriarch of the family who begins the series doing whatever he can to save the estate from falling out of the family’s hands; his wife, Cora, a somewhat down-to-earth woman from Cincinnati whose American ideas sometimes go against British norms.; and the three daughters: Mary (spoiled bitch), Edith (jealous bitch), and Sybil (the sweet and nice one). Add in a distant working-class cousin who is the newest heir of Downton, Matthew Crawley, and his mother Isobel, who believes that his inheritance should be used to right social injustices, to the horror of everyone else.
The absolute best character, though, is the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, played by Maggie Smith. She is a fantastic actress and plays the part perfectly. While always maintaining the appearance of a lady, she still spits venom every time Isobel comes up with another scheme to spend the family’s money or “share” their home. She’s adorably snarky, with a witty one-liner always at the ready. There’s one moment where she says, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it!” that had me howling. It’s become part of a trifecta of favorite Maggie Smith lines, along with, “Boogie woogie on the piano? What were you thinking?” from Sister Act and, “I need Wood!” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Not to be forgotten, though, are all of Downton’s servants, who play a huge part in the series. They have storylines that often intertwine with their aristocratic employers’. The Crawley family cares deeply for their servants, and will often be seen helping them out “under the table”. Once World War I begins in season two, the family is often working alongside the house staff to care for wounded soldiers, but that doesn’t fully bridge the class gap between them.
The servants have much more varied storylines and are so much fun to watch. Mr. Carson is the butler, who, despite his appearance of total propriety, is actually very kind and loving, and actually treats Mary like his own daughter. The same goes for Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, who smuggles food to Ethel, a housemaid she fires early on in season two. John Bates is the valet (and they totally call him Master Bates in the pilot episode). His love affair with head housemaid Anna gets him in a ton of trouble in season two. Most of the staff are sympathetic characters, most especially William and Daisy. The same with Gwen, who wants to better herself by becoming a secretary, and Mrs. Patmore, the stubborn cook who, while abusive towards Daisy, is actually very kind. However, O’Brien and Thomas are absolutely despicable characters. While O’Brien ends up regretting many of her actions, Thomas is a sociopath.
Episodes of Downton Abbey have a very interesting structure. First, an episode often spans months of time, which can at times make you wonder if life in the early 1900s moves at a snail’s pace. When you think about the fact that they don’t even get a telephone until season two, the answer is, yes, it does. Another interesting thing to note about each episode is that most of the action tends to happen offscreen, choosing instead to focus on each character’s reaction in the aftermath. While that might not seem too exciting, it’s perfect for this show. It’s all about the characters, so if you love movies or books that focus on people and the relationships between them, without any sappy-sweet sentimentality, this show is definitely for you.
As Downton Abbey readies for season three, you can catch season one on Netflix Instant. Season two is no longer available to view on the PBS website, but you can catch it on DVD and on iTunes (and probably also on Netflix soon). Season three will begin airing in the U.K. in September, and in the U.S. in 2013. In case you’re still not convinced to watch Downton Abbey yet, here’s where I first heard about “Fancy Entourage”, on Saturday Night Live.