When I sat down to watch Downton Abbey with my mother last month, I fully expected to be bored. In fact, I was quite looking forward to ridiculing the show as trite and poorly acted, something geared toward middle aged women.
I was wrong.
Downton Abbey chronicles the stories of the Crawley family and their servants during the first decade of the twentieth century up until the 1920s, showing their struggles and the inevitable drama. It has everything a classic Romance novel usually has – heirs, scandals, and dashing young gentlemen. But more importantly it takes the genre beyond the Pride and Prejudice type roots, creating a cast of witty, engaging characters.
This show isn’t just about the servants and their masters, you see, there is also a complex political and socioeconomic background. The show opens with the sinking of the Titanic (and with it the two male heirs the family was counting on), two characters fought in the British Boer Wars, and World War One drastically changes the household.
Maggie Smith plays The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Countess of Grantham — or the Earl of Grantham’s elderly mother. Harry Potter fans will recognize her as Professor McGonagall, but Smith is no wizard in this series. Instead, she is a conniving old woman bet on saving the Downton estate and Crawley fortune. Every scene she is in could arguably be considered the best scenes of each episode — from the moment she shies away from the new electric lamps distrustfully to the careful conversations shying around talk of *gasp* sex.
Smith’s character represents the vestiges from the Victorian mores, standing against the servants and the younger generation. It’s clever the way the producers do it, really, by focusing in on both the aristocracy and servant classes it becomes clear how the divides between them are evaporating as the modern era chugs along.
There are about a hundred story lines to keep track of, but it’s worth it. The intrigue has all the appeal of a soap opera, with all of the complexity of The Lord of the Rings. It’s smart and well written, plus – at the risk of alienating every teen from it – almost educational.
Each episode as originally broadcast was forty five minutes long, but when the episodes crossed the pond for some unknown reason PBS decided to make them into four ninety minute episodes. Because of that, the endings are slightly altered in the American version, but not to a great extent. The content, the story, the show itself is the same.
There are some drawbacks, of course. Occasionally the show will have moments where the characterization is a bit hard to believe, ranging a bit too far into the soap — but it more than makes up for itself when the next episode airs and you’re plunged once again into great pacing and plain old good writing.
The first season as it originally aired is available on Netflix, and Season Two started airing January 9th. Season Three will be broadcast sometime in September 2012 in the United Kingdom.
Downton Abbey has something for everyone — from dashing men to plotting servants, pouting heiresses to historical context. As the show gains steam in the United States, there is even more incentive to film more episodes. Hopefully Downton Abbey will end up just like fine wine: aging into perfection.