Show of the Day: Downton Abbey

12 Jan

I’ll admit, I had no idea what Downton Abbey was about other than being an English period drama until earlier this week.  In fact, I kept reading it incorrectly as “Downtown Abbey” which conjures a very different idea in the mind.  After watching the seven episode first season though, I’m certainly glad I know more about it now.

Downton Abbey is about the residents of the titular location, an estate in Northern England, including both the aristocratic family who run the Abbey, and the serving men and women who make the Abbey run.  A third economic class is introduced in the second episode when an upper middle class lawyer and his mother move into the Abbey because the lawyer has become the new heir to the title and estate after the old heir died in the Titanic disaster.

Downton Abbey is about as British as British gets.  It’s like Gosford Park without the murder.  (Note: I had absolutely no idea it was from the same writer as Gosford Park until I had finished five episodes, but it makes perfect sense.)  One of the essentially European aristocratic core issues at hand is the secession of the estate and title, as well as the marrying off of the three daughters of the current Lord and Lady of the estate.  Downton Abbey takes place at a crucial junction in time at which both love and position count in constituting a match, and the battle between the two occurs throughout the show.

Downton Abbey is a soap opera at its heart, a less serious show than critically acclaimed series of the period such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad.  However, it also deals with the class structure in an interesting, albeit generally unrealistically sunny and positive way.  The lord and lady of Downton Abbey are generally benelovent, but can’t avoid their learned feelings of noblesse oblige.  Even between the Lord and Lady, there are issues, as the lady is an American who Lord Grantham originally married for her money, which was necessary to save the estate.  The men and women of the serving class deal with vastly different problems than the aristocracy, largely, but also some similar programs.  Downton Abbey takes place at a similar time as far more serious show Boardwalk Empire, when the times are changing rapidly, but the characters largely try to change as little as absolutely necessary to adapt.  The biggest rift, aside from class, is generational, as the three daughters, to various degrees, are far more ready to embrace the less stratified world than their parents and grandparents.

I knew I was on board for good when I started rooting for and against characters, even yelling at my TV, and not in the angry at the show way, but in an angry at the characters way.  As far as the rogues gallery goes, Maggie Smith is fantastic as the cantankerous matriarch of the house, mother to the current lord, the Dowager Countess Violet.  She’s quick with an insult and is a protector of all things traditional, proper and conservative in the wake of attempts at forced changes to the social order from outside the estate.  Her foil is lawyer and new heir Matthew Crawley’s mother, who is the one character who is extremely progressive for her generation, and is the only character stubborn enough to not give in to the Dowager Countess, much to Smith’s dismay.

The most villainous characters are probably footman Thomas and maid Mrs. O’Brien, who are constantly scheming to get their personal nemesis valet Mr. Bates fired.  Bates, a newly hired footman at the beginning of the show, harbors some sort of secret, but seems a much better sort than Thomas (just one season of the show has me describing people as a “sort”).  Thomas is cruel to the other footman, William, and constantly flirts with cook’s assistant Daisy who is just about the only character who doesn’t realize that his affections are reserved for men.

Eldest daughter Mary I wouldn’t quite call a villain, but it’s frustrating watching her constant immaturity on display through the first season, as well as the way she treats her youngest sister Edith, drawing every man’s attention even when she’s not interested, just because she can.  Edith reciprocates with immature behavior to get back at Mary.  There are characters to root for as well.  Middle daughter Sybil is by far my favorite of the three (though the  other two have grown on me over time; it’s a sign of a good show when it’s able to make you like the characters you hated at first).  Sybil gets less screen time than Mary in the first season, but she’s the most political and most willing to attempt to break free from the social restrictions of the time.  Lord Grantham is better 1910s version of Tim Allen’s character in Last Man Standing.  Inherently conservative, but well-meaning, he’s caught between all the women in his life, including his daughters, wife and mother.  He wants to do what’s best within the narrow parameters he’s grown up with, but often ends up mediating a dispute between the women and takes a compromise position.  Matthew Crawley, the new heir, is a middle class lawyer, who struggles to fit into an aristocratic lifestyle.  He doesn’t always succeed, but he manages to turn general resentment from the family when he first arrives to sincere affection.

One note before I finish up: The strangest aspect of Downton Abbey is how quick it skips through time between episodes.  In the vast majority of TV shows, a season takes place over a single season or year, with episodes reasonable close together in time to one another.  Downton Abbey defies that convention.  The first episode takes place in 1912, but the show is in 1914 by season’s end, and the second season jumps even more.  This is hard to compute, given my understanding of traditional TV scheduling, and left me slightly discombobulated.  Eventually I was able to just accept that the primary reason for this seems to be to move into certain historical events (World War I!), and that nothing really important happens on the estate during the months we’re not seeing.

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