American television needed this. Maybe the British have been content in their current costume-drama offerings, but here in the United States, television shows as rich as Downton Abbey are lacking in number and quality. Sure, there are the one-hour programs on AMC and HBO, but lately they’ve been straying toward vampires and zombies. Where’s the drama? The history? The deep sense of characterization?
Downton Abbey, the brainchild of Julian Fellowes, brings all the qualities that make for invigorating television into one single ensemble piece that feels authentic, touching, funny and brimming with interesting story lines. Most importantly, the series has greater ambitions than merely entertainment. By looking at the privileged, upper-class life of the Crawley family in sharp contrast to the servants who dedicate their lives to the estate, audience members receive a wonderfully complex microcosm of economic stratification. The ladies and gentleman who live upstairs couldn’t lead more different lives than the workers who toil in the basement. Within one household, there’s the larger story of British society in the early part of the 20th century.
Hugh Bonneville plays Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. He has a stubborn mother (a glorious Maggie Smith), a rich American wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and three daughters all in pursuit of a husband. We first meet the family after news has returned from the Atlantic Ocean: The Titanic has sunk at sea, and the potential heirs to the estate have died. The plan, almost written in stone, was for Robert’s oldest daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to marry the heir, and that Downton Abbey would stay in the family’s bloodline. But with the presumed heir now gone, and no sons to take over, the Crawleys face the reality of giving over everything to a distant cousin in Manchester — a middle-class man with no connection to Robert and his family.
As the wealthy folks determine the future of the family finances, the servants, led by butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), cook, clean and offer everything they can in service to the Crawleys. They are a dedicated staff and when something is not perfect, Carson takes notice and makes changes immediately. The newest member among their ranks is John Bates (Brendan Coyle), an injured war veteran who walks with a cane. The servants and the family are almost horrified by this man’s “crippled” nature, but Lord Grantham is a kind person who gives Bates a chance as his valet.
There are numerous other characters in the series, all of whom bring great color to the social landscape. Penelope Wilton and Dan Stevens are great as Isobel and Matthew Crawley, a mother-son team who find themselves the new heirs of the Abbey. Siobhan Finneran is also cunningly perfect as the Irish maid Sarah O’Brien.
The dialogue in the first two parts of the first series is beautifully written. So much happens, but audience members never feel left out of any conversation. Everything spirals around in a very easy-to-understand manner. Much credit should be given to Fellowes and his exquisite design team. The costumes are intricate. The real-life estate is beautiful. The assembled actors are the best of the best.
Downton Abbey is a special television show that gives so much to its devoted viewers. Watching these varied lives work through their problems is fascinating and educative. Within seconds, we feel as wealthy as an heir and as dedicated as a butler. We get to live many lives in this television show, which is now available on DVD from PBS (with a third series coming soon). Choose your character and watch how this perfect ensemble drama unfolds.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Created by Julian Fellowes
Starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens, among many, many others