Downton Abbey surprised many by becoming a breakout hit. Airing on ITV in its native UK, it’s been presented in the United States as part of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. A mix of social commentary and an old-fashioned soap opera, Downton Abbey is a period drama that takes place in the sprawling titular estate where the upper class residents live parallel lives with their servants. If this sounds familiar to some, it should: similar themes were mined in the classic British drama Upstairs, Downstairs.
Oscar-winning film scribe, Julian Fellows (Gosford Park) creates an intricate and tightly woven world where passion and deceit always must remain submerged in a veneer of gentility. The focus of the show is on the Crawley family. The patriarch, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), married an American heiress, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and had three children: Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Robert’s domineering mother, Violet (Maggie Smith) also features heavily in the lives of the family members. In the Crawleys’ employ are the staff, headed by the butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). This is an ensemble show, so it has a sprawling cast with various subplots and story arcs that get looked at with each episode.
Starting with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the story’s main conflict lies in the Crawley family’s search for a suitable heir. Because Robert and Cora only had girls, the estate will be inherited by a cousin, Matthew (Dan Stevens), a middle-class lawyer who is initially ill-at-ease living among the gentry. The family hope that Mary and Matthew will fall in love and marry, ensuring that Cora’s money stays in the immediate family. Because of a controversy involving the death of a Turkish diplomat, the union between Mary and Matthew is endangered, offering episodes of a “will they, won’t they” drama. Edith, meanwhile, feels constantly overshadowed by her beautiful sisters, and is perennially ignored by her good-natured, if slightly oblivious parents. The youngest, Sybil, meanwhile, finds an inner strength and goes into progress social activism and political work.
The staff members’ lives are just as interesting. The mysterious new valet, Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), joins the staff, to the consternation of the scheming footman, Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and his equally devious friend, Cora’s maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran). He also catches the eye of Mary’s maid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt).
There are a lot of characters to keep track of, but the writing is crisp and sparkling and the acting is great – in particular Smith, in an Emmy-winning role, steals every scene she’s in, as the fire-breathing dragon of a dowager. The social stratification and class hierarchy inDownton Abbey is fascinating: the characters all stick to their stations in life, but it’s interesting when there is an overlap. The maids, for example, never forget that they’re employees, but create bonds with their ladies nonetheless – an interesting look at how people don’t transcend or overcome social boundaries, but merely learn to live in spite of them. The ongoing growth of Sybil’s political and social awareness is also fantastic because we see the drama of women’s suffrage played out among the over-priviliged people, who may be decent folk, but who still hold on to these kinds of values that keep them in the luxury they enjoy.
Downton Abbey became an instant TV classic and is touted as one of the most successful British dramas on television. It’s easy to see why: with the gluttony of reality TV still cramped on to the schedules,Downton Abbeyis a refreshing relief – offering middle-brow entertainment with a little more heft.