In anticipation of the airing of second season of Downton Abbey in the US early next month, I am devoting a couple of posts to the program this week. Today’s is a review of the first season, which I have watched six times already this year. This review contains minor spoilers.
Downton Abbey, the mesmerizing series that aired on PBS earlier this year and is available on DVD in its unedited UK form, is an anglophile period drama fan’s dream. It has everything: proper English accents, elaborate costumes, exquisite photography, sharp writing – you name it. And it involves quality talent, written by Academy Award winner Julian Fellowes, of Gosford Park acclaim, and starring veterans Dame Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, and Hugh Bonneville alongside up-and-comers Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens.
Set in the years between the Titanic disaster and the outbreak of World War I, Downton centers on Lord Grantham (Bonneville), an earl whose estate will be passed to a distant cousin because he doesn’t have a son. The program’s blend of Gone with the Wind, Upstairs, Downstairs, and Jane Austen makes it resemble a potpourri of popular period pieces. But Downton is not your grandmother’s period drama: you’re likelier to find a closeted gay character, a sex scandal, and those oh-no-she-didn’t moments in Gossip Girl than in standard period fare. Downton also treats the aristocracy and servants equally, making it a well-rounded, edgy period drama, an addicting high-class soap.
Downton Abbey is all-around superb, but its main strengths are the characters and their dialogue. Leading is the divisive eldest daughter Lady Mary (Dockery, in an affecting performance), whose will-they-or-won’t-they romance with new heir Matthew (Stevens) echoes Pride and Prejudice. Mary herself resembles a haughtier Elizabeth Bennet skewed by the scheming of Scarlett O’Hara. But the brilliance of Mary’s character comes when her mask falls, revealing a confused young woman – cold yet caring, headstrong yet weak-willed – and creating one of television’s more interesting character studies.
Other colorful characters populating Downton include the American lady of the house (McGovern), her suffragette daughter, her vengeful plain middle daughter, an Irish socialist chauffer, a cook with cataracts, and a housemaid with secretarial ambitions. The show’s heart, however, is in head housemaid Anna (an endearing Joanne Froggatt) and new valet Bates (a mysterious Brendan Coyle), whose sweet romance foils the fireworks of Mary and Matthew.
But the MVP of Downton is undoubtedly Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham, who embodies the fossilized arrogance of the aging English aristocracy. Smith’s sharp delivery of Fellowes’s witty writing, her hilarious reactions to innovations like electricity and swivel chairs, and her clashes with Matthew’s mother Isobel (an affable Penelope Wilton) are absolute zingers. You will laugh out loud at the things she says, like the now famous, “What is a weekend?”
If there is one criticism of Downton – historical issues aside, naturally – it is that it moves too quickly, covering two years in six hours. Several events are merely mentioned in passing. The final episode in particular is hastily edited, with major scenes appearing abruptly. On the DVD, at least, new scenes explain the seemingly out-of-place scenes in the reedited PBS broadcast.
And finally, though often assumed a miniseries, make no mistake: Downton Abbey is an ongoing series, so don’t expect a tidy ending yet. There is more Downton to come, and that is certainly welcome news.
If you missed Downton Abbey when it aired earlier this year, PBS will be rebroadcasting its edit of the first season beginning December 18. If you wish to watch the season in its original form, it is available on DVD. The second season, which has already aired in the UK, will air on PBS beginning January 8. On Friday, I will post an analysis of the marketing of Downton Abbey.