Last year, Masterpiece Classic took us inside life at an English country estate in 1912. We watched as two completely different worlds faced scandal, heartache, grief, romance, joy, backstabbing, and struggle under one grand roof...Downton Abbey. Who could have guessed that this show would be popular, not just with the regular Masterpiece and PBS crowd, but also with millions of ordinary Americans who had never before experienced the greatness of a British period drama. With the beginning of the 2nd series, Downton fever took America by storm. We were tweeting it, blogging it, spoofing it, and tuning in like never before. It truly became a piece of popular culture.
Series 2 picks up two years after the end of Series 1. World War I is raging in Europe and life at Downton Abbey has been completely turned upside down. Matthew Crawley, and footmen Thomas and William all end up on the front lines. Back home, everyone is doing there part for the war effort. Lady Sibyl is training to be a nurse, Anna and the other maids are filling in for the missing footmen, and Cousin Isobel is helping run the hospital. It isn't long before the Crawley family is talked into converting Downton into a convalescent home for wounded officers.
But the storms are not only happening outside of Downton's walls. Just as Anna and Mr. Bates are beginning to feel that marriage might be a possibility, his vindictive wife threatens to wreck their dreams and bring scandal upon the Crawley family. Star crossed lovers Matthew and Lady Mary have seemingly moved on, Matthew with a sweet London girl named Lavinia and Lady Mary with a shrewd newspaper owner name Richard Carlyle. Lady Sybil is forced to choose between her family's expectations and her blossoming love for Socialist chauffeur Branson. Lord Grantham is feeling useless in this time of war. Lady Edith is trying to find her own place both in her family and in society. New housemaid Ethel in trying to step up in the world ends up in a difficult position. And Lady Mary's secret from Series 1 is constantly threatening to unearth itself. Will the occupants of Downton Abbey be able to survive the internal and external struggles of this turbulent period in history?
I greatly enjoyed Series 1, so how did Series 2 stack up? It had its good points and it's bad points. At times, it did seem that the story line descended into the melodramatic. Typical soap opera plots would pop up here and there from amnesia, to miraculous recoveries, to adulterous trysts. All of this lent Series 2 an air of predictability and modernity that slightly tarnished it in my opinion. Also, there were story lines that seemed to drag on FOREVER without little to no resolution. I wish I had a nickle for every "You know you love me" conversation Branson had with Lady Sybil in the garage. The actor who played Mr. Pamuk in Series 1 deserved to have his name in the credits for the number of times his character's name came up. I was about ready to wring little Daisy's neck listening to her go on and on about how bad she felt about marrying William when he was dying. And Mr. Bates and Anna's relationship was one long martyrdom with none of the sparks of Series 1. Plus, I ended up being very disappointed in Lord Grantham.
Having said all of that, this is a definite must watch. No matter how many irritating plot lines and disappointing character developments happened, I never stopped caring about the story. My heart broke for Anna as she watched the man she loved be condemned for murder. I cried as sweet William breathed his last. I laughed as conniving Thomas wandered through the woods and mud looking for Lord Grantham's dog. And I cheered as the path for Matthew and Lady Mary to get together finally opened up. This is all in addition to wonderful acting, great costumes and sets, and a fascinating glimpse at life in 1916. It is certainly one of the best things on television today and I am very much looking forward to Series 3!
If I had to pick the best highlights of Series 2, I would have to say that the first was the Christmas special. That particular episode was probably the best in terms of plot, tone, and heart. I was especially happy to see Nigel Havers on screen again (even if he did play a gold-digging cad)! And the second highlight of the series was, of course, Maggie Smith. Once again she played her character to perfection and delivered some of the series' best moments. Whether she was struggling to use the telephone ("Hello? Shrimpy?"), convincing Cousin Isobel to help refugees, or giving her granddaughters good advice ("Don't be defeatist, dear. It's so middle class."), Dame Maggie steals every scene she is in. She is one of the top reasons that Downton Abbey is worth watching.
If, by some chance, you are one of the few Americans who have not been sucked into this world, I suggest you do so at once. Both Series 1 and Series 2 are available on DVD. Masterpiece Classic has begun the 2012 season beautifully, and I can't wait to see what else they have in store for us.
Up Next: A new version of Dickens' Great Expectations starring Gillian Anderson and David Suchet.