TV Review: Downton Abbey

Title: Downton Abbey

Genre: Historical (England 1912-1914)

Watched: March 14-19, 2011

Status: First Season (second coming fall 2011)

Summary: Great Television!


My parents, as lifelong anglophiles and Masterpiece Theatre viewers, recommended this British TV series set in 1912-1914. It wasn’t a hard sell once I read the blurb, and I’m so glad we watched it. This is really fine television.

Downton Abbey is a fictional great English country estate, owned by the middle aged Earl of Grantham. He has a loving wife and three daughters, not to mention about 30 assorted housekeepers, maids, footmen, and the like. What he doesn’t have is an heir, as his cousin, the closest male relative went down with the Titanic. The major family drama here is the conflict between the complex English system of inheritance (and this earl’s specific case) and the circumstances. The playground is an anything but simple household that contains no less than 20 major cast members.

No show or movie I’ve ever seen before so intimately details complex organization of great estate like this. I’m always fascinated by the evolution of everyday living (for rich and poor alike) and anyone who thinks the rich keep on getting richer ought to see this. And then remember that a 100 years earlier a house like this would have had five times the servants. Also dominant are the politics and different roles of the various staff and family members. 1914 is the end of an era, as the double whammy of World War I/II will shatter the aging remains of Europe’s cast system like a crystal vase dropped off the Empire State Building (HERE for some of my thoughts on that). In any case, this series is to a large extent about this particular moment, so indicative of the long history of social change. We have employee rights, women’s franchise, choice in marriage and family, even the availability of healthcare and the installation of the telephone.

But that’s not what makes it good, merely interesting. What makes it good is the phenomenal writing and acting. Maggie Smith (younger viewers will know her better as Professor Minerva McGonagall) is a standout as the reigning Earl’s crotchety old mother, but the entire cast is great. For this many characters, they are each highly distinct and multidimensional. Some you love, some you love to hate, but they all make it entertaining. Downton Abbey is not a series about sudden murders or gratuitous brothel scenes like the great HBO dramas (and I love those too!), but instead a series of intertwined character studies that reveal their era as well as timeless facets of human nature.

So unless you thought Transformers 2 was high entertainment, go watch!

4 comments on “TV Review: Downton Abbey

  1. Jane Gullickson says:

    And did you see the part where they got the phone and didn’t quite know what to do with it? I’m on your folks’ page with this series!

    • agavin says:

      Yeah, very amusing. As far as I’ve read, the phone was pretty prevalent in American cities by this point. That was the British countryside of course. Bell was in its typical American way much more agressive than European phone companies, as Americans are more commercial. Something that as far as I can tell was true even in the 18th century.

      On one of my many biz trips to London in the 90s I went to Westminister Abbey. When it closed the priests swept us out. We passed the gift shop outside, and it had shut 30 minutes before. In America, the gift shop would not only close AFTER the attraction itself, you’d probably be required to walk through it to exit!

      • Jane Gullickson says:

        When I went to live in England in the early ’70’s, I was amazed that the local shops shut down from 1 till 2 for lunch and the shopkeepers were in no way interested in my business for that hour! “Come back later, Mum. Ta!”

    • agavin says:

      Rural Italy is hilarious that way. I stayed for a while in Lucca (45 minutes from Florence) and it took me two weeks of visiting every day for this one shop I wanted to go in to actually be open. There are a lot of Saint Days. How they pay rent… that I don’t know 🙂

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