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!