Downton Abbey, which recently ended its second season on PBS and is now available on DVD, is so exquisite and rich (pun intended) that it escapes categorization. The show’s construct makes it sound like a TV series, with weekly hour-long segments and returning story lines. But its plot, scenic design and total commitment to compelling characterization feel cinematic, or at least like a TV movie or miniseries. This is obviously because Downton Abbey is an import from England, where costume dramas are as fruitful as city-specific murder mysteries are in the United States (although the Brits have their own CSI and Criminal Minds equivalents).
In season two, which consists of eight full-length episodes plus a Christmas special, the Crawley household continues its march toward modernism. The young women begin demanding freedom. The lines between the upperclass and lower-class are beginning to blur. Love is in the air, and malfeasance is around every corner. The main reason for all of the changes is the onset of World War I. The Crawley family refuses to sit back and let the country’s sons die in another country. All of them, wealthy and servant alike, decide to throw in a helping hand.
Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) fund-raise for the troops and ensure the local hospital is prepared for the injured soldiers. Going even further, the Crawleys take the advice of their cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and turn the house into a rehabilitation center for soldiers on the mend. Although the war is being fought across the English Channel, it still makes its way to Downton’s doorstep. These scenes, which also feature wealthy young men heading to the front, are in stark contrast to the perception of today’s military soldiers.
Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) continue their love relationship, although it’s put on hiatus with the continuing interruptions of Bates’s estranged wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy, from Dexter). Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is still the leader of the servants, while O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas (Rob James-Collier) continue their scheming.
The Crawley daughters are still on the hunt for proper husbands, while Matthew (Dan Stevens) fights in the French countryside. With so much turmoil and uncertainty in the air, everything and everyone seems to be lost in the energy of the times.
The acting continues to impress. Coyle’s Bates is probably the most interesting character, and the one who undergoes the most drastic changes. Maggie Smith’s Violet provides comic relief and a sense of connection to the crumbling past. There’s a great sternness achieved by Lesley Nicol’s Mrs. Patmore, Downton’s chef. Wilton is also strident and inspiring as Isobel.
The real star is Julian Fellowes, the writer and creator of the series. He takes care of this story with such skill and dedication that everything feels organic and well-earned. Spending company with the Crawley family and the servants is always a delight. There is so much intrigue, comedy, drama, heartbreak and social resonance. As mentioned in our season one review (click here), Downton Abbey succeeds because the show is actually educational. The relationships that abound between the different classes prove to be a telling example of England’s turn-of-the-century stratification. Interestingly, the servants rely on the family for their living wage, but the family also relies on the servants for friendship, mentorship and common sense. It’s a strange dichotomy that is constantly tested by each and every character.
The season two DVD from PBS includes featurettes on the show’s fashions and uniforms, “Romance in a Time of War” and the changes of Downton from a house to a hospital. They serve as nice complements to the main event. Downton Abbey is arguably the best series on television — and amazingly, it doesn’t even feel like television, at least not to American viewers.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Written and created by Julian Fellowes
Starring Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Penelope Wilton, Michelle Dockery, Dan Stevens, Brendan Coyle, Joanne Froggatt, Siobhan Finneran, Ron James-Collier, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown Findlay, Lesley Nichol, Sophie McShera, Amy Nuttal and Thomas Howes
8 episodes, plus the Christmas special (running 9 hours on three discs)