Since Masterpiece is currently in its 40th season, it seems only fitting that its first new production hearkens back to the golden era of the program. In many ways, Downton Abbey is a throwback to the large ensemble tradition of I, Claudius and the non-literature-adaptation of Upstairs, Downstairs, and yet it is still very fresh, modern, and unknown.
Set at a beautiful country estate in 1912 (and 13 and 14), Downton Abbey tells the story of the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his family and household. After the two heirs to Downton die on the Titanic (Lord Grantham has only three daughters), Lord Grantham's wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and mother (Maggie Smith) begin plotting to undo the entail that prevents the eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery) from inheriting the estate. Either that or get her married as well and as soon as possible. Not long afterward, the newest heir, a middle class lawyer named Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), arrives to begin learning the ways of the estate that he will one day inherit. Meanwhile, the arrival of Lord Grantham's new valet, John Bates (Brendan Coyle) creates a new dimension in the hierarchy of the downstairs staff which includes the formidable butler, Carson (Jim Carter), the lovely housemaid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the scheming footman, Thomas (Rob James-Collier), and the politically involved chauffeur, Branson (Allen Leech).
Downton Abbey was a huge success both across the pond and here in America, and with good reason. The writing is wonderful, the cast is phenomenal, and the story is interesting. Those who have watched any British drama can figure out the whole "entail" part of it (just watch Pride and Prejudice if you need a refresher), and if you happened to catch PBS's 2003 production of Manor House, then you are more than prepared for the drama of Edwardian estate society. Add to it a dash of women's lib, gay rights, and the foreshadowing of the end of British aristocracy and you have a pretty good idea of what the feel of this production.
Overall, I enjoyed this production a lot. I'm not going to say that I'm head over heels for it, but it was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday evening. Here's a breakdown of some the aspects of the show that I liked:
-Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. All of the actors were great in their roles, but nobody did it like Dame Maggie. Every scene she was in was stupendous. She delivered every single line with utter perfection. And what lines they were too. "What is a weekend?", "Put that in your pipe and smoke it!", and "Why is every day a fight with an American?". If you don't watch this production for any other reason, watch it to see this great lady in action.
-Bates/Anna sidestory. I think the producers originally intended for Matthew and Mary to be the main romantic draw. But if you read the comments from viewers worldwide, it was the romantic tension between Bates and Anna that really hooked the audience. I've loved Brendan Coyle since I first saw him as Nicholas Higgins in North and South, and he gives another great performance here. From the moment he arrives on the scene, we cant help but sympathize with this kind, aloof, and determined man. Watching his relationship with Anna blossom is probably the highlight of the story.
-Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham. It is easy to almost forget the Earl of Grantham in the whirling sub-plots happening around him. But in reality, he is the anchor of the story. He is a man whose love for his family is insurmountable, and his concern for their happiness and well-being is very touching. He also has a large devotion to his estate, feeling that it is his duty to preserve what previous generations had worked so hard to build. This leads him to not only not fight the entail, but to take Matthew Crawley under his wing and show him the ropes of being an estate owner. I love when he shows Matthew how his middle-class beliefs and prejudices are hurtful and insulting to those who feel a life in service to be their calling. In today's world that is founded on equality, liberation, and a freedom from duty, it is nice to watch a series that portrays the beauty found in someone born with authority who uses it to better himself, his dependents, and the generations to come.
All in all, Downton Abbey truly deserves the many accolades it has received. It was a fine way to kick off the 2011 season. If you watched it on television, be aware that you did NOT see the complete UK series, as PBS shortened and rearranged it for American audiences. You can see the complete series on DVD (available through Netflix).
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