I’m a little late to the Downton Abbey party – not as late as I was to the Wire party – but we just ripped through the first season on Netflix Instant over the last three nights as well as Sunday’s U.S. premiere of season two, so I’m up to speed. It’s soapier than I’d like, but so witty and smart with many compelling characters that I’ve been happy to get sucked in by the drama that drives the show’s core.
(Warning: There are some spoilers in the bullets below, including one pertaining to the start of season two.)
Downton Abbey is set in the 1910s on an English estate of that name and revolves around the family of Lord Grantham (the upstairs) and the multitude of servants who actually run the house (downstairs). There are short plots and multi-episode arcs; stories limited to the earl’s family, stories limited to the servants, and stories that intertwine the two; and larger themes around conventional morality and the changing political and social landscape of the time. It is ambitious in scope, yet is filmed with short edits, quick dialogue, and tremendous focus on individual characters – both in terms of writing and cinematography.
An ensemble show like this cannot succeed with a weak cast, since there is no single star or even a subset or two or three who participate in enough of the story to carry the entire series. Dame Maggie Smith, who won an Emmy for her performance in season one*, plays the Countess Dowager Lady Violet with enough haughty facial expressions to merit her own meme, providing comic relief on top of a serious role as the voice of the old English order that is under assault from all sides. (She played a similar character in Gosford Park.) The seething sibling rivalry between the elder two Grantham sisters, increasingly central to the biggest story arc on the show, is only effective through the acerbic delivery and withering looks from the actresses in those parts. But for me, the real stars are the less-known actors and actresses playing the servants, especially the two villains, Siobhan Finneran as
Nurse Ratchett Mrs. O’Brien and Rob James-Collier as Thomas the sociopathic footman; Brendan Coyle as the maddeningly proper John Bates (operating under his own moral code, it seems); and Jim Carter as the imperious butler Mr. Carson.
* Downton Abbey was nominated in the Best Movie/Miniseries category, which allowed it to win six awards – but it felt as hollow as Lady Violet’s flower show wins because the deck was stacked. I think this show could easily hold its own against Mad Men in the drama series categories, and it’s a more apt description of the program, which was aired in the UK as seven individual episodes, all between 47 and 63 minutes excluding commercials. The miniseries category has lost its relevance anyway – this ain’t Shogun, which was longer, told a complete story, and was aired in its entirety during a single week – and Downton Abbey should be treated as the Emmys treated its spiritual antecedent, Upstairs, Downstairs, which won three Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series (the last PBS series to do so). Stop treating them like Boise State and let them fight the big boys. They might actually win.
The writing is more dramatic, or melodramatic, than I’m used to seeing, especially in British dramas, but still falls short of the mind-numbing sentimentality that infects so much American broadcast network programming. What bothers me more about Downton Abbey is the time-out-of-joint flashes of modern sensibilities, behavior and dialogue that would have been uncouth a century ago but that goes unremarked upon within the show (an assessment I’m basing on literature I’ve read from the period, since my wayback machine is broken, preventing me from evaluating this firsthand). It also seems like there’s a second writing voice that’s less faithful to the vernacular of the time period.
But the speed with which the script’s dramatic elements move, delaying or sacrificing some character development, is one of the show’s strengths – they’ve adapted the British period piece/costume drama to the shorter attention span of the modern audience, hooking everyone with shorter story arcs so we all stick around for the longer ones. It’s an intense, fast-moving show, often very funny, occasionally sentimental, and always smart, worth your time even if you might ordinarily turn your nose up at a show with this much drama and yet so little conventional action.
- Mary : Elizabeth Bennett :: Matthew : Mr. Darcy. Discuss.
- I still don’t understand why Mary never said anything, even to her mother, about the Turkish gentleman arriving uninvited in her bedroom. It doesn’t nullify the infraction, but I would have thought this would be the first thing out of Mary’s mouth.
- I don’t care about the age difference between Anna and Mr. Bates – and really, Joanne Froggatt can make a face to shatter your heart, so let’s get them together already – but am I the only one to think he generally speaks to her more as a father might to a daughter?
- Elizabeth McGovern, as the American wife of Lord Grantham, is the weakest link in the cast. In trying to sound supercilious she sounds more like a mother talking to an infant, regardless of who else is in the conversation.
- The actress who plays Daisy is 26. And I thought I looked young.
- A tumblr called Downton Pawnee. Solid, with at least one panel from a DA episode that hasn’t aired here yet.
- And the spoiler question on S2E2 (aired here on Sunday together with S2E1): Was Thomas the source of the razor? I say yes; my wife looked at me like I was fashioning a tin-foil hat. What say you?