[credit provider=”PBS” url=”http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/downtonabbey/”]
You might have seen your friends posting about it on Facebook and Twitter, read about it in Entertainment Weekly, or even read the scathing things we had to say about, but absolutely everyone is talking about Downton Abbey. For all the uninitiated here is what you need to know about the British import.For those of you who use that big box in your living room to only watch Toddlers and Tiaras and SportsCenter, Downton Abbey is a show on PBS. Yes, PBS! Can you believe that we’re actually talking about something that you can get for free! The title refers not to a home for nuns in an urban area, but a British manor house, Downton Abbey. It is the home to the Crawley family and their servants and the action follows the drama both in the drawing rooms and the kitchen downstairs. Basically it’s like every Jane Austen novel happening at the same time, but with servants too.
When the show starts (season one is available on Netflix streaming and you will watch it all in one sitting, so start early in the day), it is 1912 and the Titanic just sank. This is a big deal at Downton Abbey because the Earl of Grantham has three grown daughters and no son and the heir to his land and title died in the accident. The new heir must be identified and it is a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley, a country solicitor (that’s “lawyer” in British) who was not raised in the upper class like his relatives. He comes to town and intrigue ensues. It sounds pretty basic, but here are a few reasons this show is one so damn compelling.
The first season of the show dealt with the sinking of the Titanic, Marxism, and the burgeoning women’s rights movement thanks to the Earl’s progressive youngest daughter, Sybil. This season is all about the Great War, as the Brits call it. It’s teaching history! There are also all those damn costumes and beautiful interiors and characters with complex motivations being penned in by a restrictive society. It’s all the best parts of Middlemarch without having to lug around a thousand page novel all the damn time.
Just because all the characters are tortured doesn’t mean this is Mad Men. The action moves quickly and it’s quite soapy. There are engagements and disengagements. Everyone has a secret and they are revealed at the worst possible moment. There isn’t any switched at birth plots or amnesia (yet) but there is a moment at the end of season one that gets into some serious Melrose Place territory. It’s this blend of high and low that makes Downton so fun. You can be smart and trashy at the same time!
The Earl of Grantham is an even-tempered and forgiving man. His wife, an American heiress, is pretty damn fierce too and so is her suffragette daughter Sybil. Eldest daughter Mary gets most of the screen time, though her officious manner makes her as much of a bitch as it does someone you want to be friends with. And let’s not forget about Carson, the stiff-upper-lip butler or Miss Hughes, the housekeeper with a firm hand who gives up a life on the outside for her sense of duty. There are just so many people to root for!
Even Better Villains
What Downton does the best though is creating conflict with some awful schemers. The best at being the worst is O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s maid who is a master manipulator (and she must be to get those curls to stay on her head just so). Her henchman is footman Thomas, a repressed homosexual who the closet has turned into a conniver and a cheat. These two are best friends and will do anything to advance themselves and their nefarious agenda. Some would say that Lady Edith, the homely middle daughter, is a villain as well, always undermining her pretty and ambitious sister Mary, but as a fellow middle child, I’d just say that she’s misunderstood and sick of people underestimating and overlooking her.
Yeah, now it’s starting to sound like a chick flick with all this love story nonsense, but it is so much better than that. First of all you have the on-again-off-again relationship between Lady Mary and her “cousin Matthew.” Her parents want her to marry him so Downton will stay in the family and she was resistant and he was into her, and then she was into him and he wasn’t having it and then they were both into each other and she fucked it all up. Just back and forth, back and forth in that classic soap style, but not in an annoying way either. The same thing is going on between Anna, a housemaid, and Bates, the Earl’s handicapable valet (pronounced val-it, not val-A). Bates is always keeping Anna at an arms length, even though they both know they’re in love together. It’s all so tragic and wonderful!
Do you know what a Maggie Smith is? I bet you do. She won Oscars for California Suite and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in the ’70s, but you probably know her from playing Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies. Well, Dame Maggie Smith’s character, Dowager Countess Violet the Earl’s mother, is a one woman insult machine and when she is let loose on her country cousins—especially the meddlesome middle-class Isobel—her tart tongue is sharper and eminently quotable. You should watch this show for Maggie Smith alone.
It Is Like Crack
I don’t know what it is but Downton, despite the troublesome second season, is incredibly addictive. It is so addictive that when you watch every episode one after another on Netflix, you still watch the opening credits every time. I just can’t explain what it is. When I first heard people raving about the show, I thought, “Oh, that sounds fun. I should check it out.” Then I watched it and I thought, “Wow, this is the most amazing show ever. Must. Have. More. Now.” It’s a combination of everything above: the characters, the drama, the costumes, the dialog, the swift and deliberate pace. I’m not sure how they achieved this perfect alchemy, but it is there. This show is like crack and once you expose yourself, you’re going to need your fix. You’ve been warned.
Like any good drug dealer, the first dose is always free, so here’s a compilation from some of the best moments of season one.
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