When my wife and I were dating, she asked me if I would watch Pride and Prejudice with her. I figured I owed her, since she previously watched the original Star Wars trilogy with me, so one night we sat down in front of the TV, popped Tape 1 of P&P into the VCR, and I soon found myself immersed in the world of the Bennet Family. It was a strange place, with giant houses, big poofy dresses, and weird dances that did not look like any fun at all. But I appreciated the quality and craftsmanship of the acclaimed miniseries, and even though I had to watch it a couple of times to figure out what was going on, I did come to enjoy it on I guess what you would call an intellectual level. It wasn’t my usual cup of tea, but the depiction of Jane Austen’s classic literary characters was outstanding. And the dialog…good gravy. The dialog. If Star Wars Episode II is the steaming chumbucket of movie dialog, Pride and Prejudice is a bowl of fine turbot.
But I digress. This review isn’t about Pride and Prejudice, it’s about Downton Abbey–the show that is, in many ways, the spiritual successor to its Jane Austen counterpart. Set in early 20th century England, the show follows the exploits of the residents of the titular dwelling as they work out relationship issues, deal with class struggles, and uncover secrets and hidden revelations about one another that (gasp!) threaten to tear the family apart! And if all this sounds a tad like daytime soaps, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. But what makes the show so compelling is the point of view from which everything is presented. In a nod to Gosford Park, much of the show does not actually focus on the high-class Crawley family who reside in the Abbey–a house-slash-castle so big it practically makes the Marland Mansion look like a low-rent duplex. Rather, the main plot of many episodes is actually about the servants and other proletariat who keep the house running so smoothly. There are territory fights, backstabbing, allegiances formed and rent asunder, and even new technologies like electric lighting and the telephone that throw servant life into a tizzy. And amidst all of this, the servants must keep the water boiling and the food cooking lest they be thrown out in search of work elsewhere.
The overall focus of Season 1 is similar to many period pieces set in a similar time and location: a vast sum of money, along with a great deal of property, must be passed down to a male heir. And, as fate would have it, no such heir exists for Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) as his three children, daughters all, remain unmarried. So of course a male relative must be unearthed lest the entail be be parceled out to unknown third parties. And in the spirit of these kinds of dramas, Grantham’s eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) mopes around feeling sorry for herself while refuseing to attach herself to just any old chap and insists on waiting for the right man to come along. Will she ever get married? Will the other daughters find husbands first? Will tea be served on time? Dear me, it’s all so very much to take in. I feel a spell coming on…
The genius of Downton Abbey lies in its juggling of these first-world problems with the various plights of the servants below, who are constantly struggling with genuine issues that regular people can relate to. John Bates (Brendan Coyle), Grantham’s new valet who served with him in the military, is constantly at odds with Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), two scheming and conniving servants who will seem to stop at nothing to get him thrown out and into the streets. Beryl Patmore (Lesley Nicol), the overeager and overbearing cook, is slowly losing her eyesight and can’t afford medical treatment. Charles Carson (Jim Carter), the butler in charge or running everything behind the scenes, has a shameful past he is trying to keep secret. The servants are far from one big happy family, and often quarrel and squabble while Thomas and O’Brien revel in slimy scheming. It’s a stark contrast between the ironed newspapers and formal dinners of the Lords and Ladies whom they serve, and a fantastic cross-section of life rarely seen in period dramas.
That’s not to say that life is all sunshine and roses for the Crawley family either, just different. The problems and conflicts of the servants and their masters intersect throughout the show, adding a great deal of depth to the characters in the process. Lord Grantham can be pragmatic and tough as nails, but also humble and compassionate. His meddling mother Lady Violet (Maggie Smith, who delightfully steals almost any scene she’s in) is firmly aristocratic while also showing signs of humanity and genuine concern. There’s also a compelling political element at work as well, with the onset of women’s rights, rumblings of the first World War, and other events that help the dealings of Downton Abbey feel very much connected with the world at large. Some subplots border on syrupy melodrama, particularly the fallout from a particularly poor decision Mary makes regarding her interactions with a visiting Turkish diplomat, but overall the show sets a high bar for entertainment and consistently, though not entirely, reaches it and more. Icing on the cake comes in the form of exquisite camera work that consistently captures the grandeur of the residence and nearby countryside, while liberal use of handheld techniques accentuate the cramped, claustrophobic servants’ quarters. Downton Abbey doesn’t quite reach the level of polish attained by its Jane Austen forebear, but one would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling period piece created in the last decade.