Surfing the Channels: Downton Abbey Seasons 1 and 2

Well, the finale of Downton Abbey was on last night on PBS, so I need to share my thoughts before they vanish from my mind.  Downton Abbey has been everywhere lately, and it’s wonderful for me to see other Americans realizing the incredible quality of the shows that Britain can produce.  And to see Americans enjoying something so quintessentially British as an upstairs-downstairs drama. It’s been so ubiquitous here that SNL did a skit about it:

If you haven’t ever seen it, I would recommend it highly.  If you’re new to period dramas especially, it may be the most accessible.  The concepts are more easy to understand and more readily explained than in some of the more classic period dramas that the BBC is famous for.

A short primer for the uninitiated: Downton Abbey (the name of one of the great aristocratic English houses) is the story of everyone that lives and works in one house in early 20th century England. For a great house like this, that means something like 50 people, though the show focuses on about 15 of them.  The ‘upstairs’ family consists of Lord Grantham, his wife Cora, their three daughters, Mary, Sybil, and Edith, and Robert’s mother, The Dowager Countess (Maggie f’ing Smith!). The ‘downstairs’ portion of the house is where the servants spent most of their time.  Back in the 19th century, English kitchens were in the basement, and this is where the servant’s worked and socialized. They usually slept in the attic, but that’s not particularly pertinent.  So there is Mrs. Padmore, the cook, and Daisy, the kitchen maid (one of the lowliest positions you could have).  They mostly stay in the basement.  The rest of the servants spend time waiting on the family, being lady and house-maids, butlers, valets, and footmen.  The show focuses on Anna, a housemaid, Thomas and William, the footmen, Bates, the valet, Carson, the butler, Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, and O’Brien, a lady maid.  If you’re not aware of the distinctions between these ranks, I’ll not bore you with my archaic knowledge. I did a fair bit of research in the past year, as I am writing a historical fiction novel myself.  But the knowledge of who reports to whom is communicated pretty effectively in the show without my pretentious ramblings.

I must say this show is proving very hard to sum up in a short primer! The only characters I’ve left out (besides incidental comers and goers) is Matthew Crawley and his mother. He is cousin to Lord Grantham, and because of rules about women inheriting in England at the time, the entire estate and fortune of the family will pass to him.

The first season is absolutely sublime. It’s dramatic, it’s enraging, endearing, hilarious.  Maggie Smith is perfection.  My only complaint about season one is that it ended, and then the wait was so long before season two arrived on our shores, that I had to rewatch so that I could remember what had gone on.

Season two leaves me a bit more uncertain.  Before and as it was starting, I heard a lot of bad reviews had come out.  Some critics even recommended not watching it, as it would ruin the first season.  I don’t agree that it was bad.  But looking back there were bits that I wish they had avoided.  Not giving anything large away, I am thinking of Edith and that farmer, and Lord Grantham’s indiscretions were particularly annoying and offensive considering the good opinion I had of him before. With all this happening, the second season seemed a bit more melodramatic soap opera than the understated drama of the first.

But there were such beautiful and sad and happy moments, and I found myself just as elated/devastated as the characters. That must be the mark of an excellent drama, when we feel things as keenly as those to whom they happens. And the horrors of WWII were enough to send me nearly over the edge. I also admire this story and its auteurs for being upstairs-downstairs, but always maintaining that the stories of the downstairs occupants are just as important and valid as those that are happening upstairs. And to see real loyalty and fondness cross that boundary. Plus, I am a sucker for a Christmas Special.

In short, I absolutely adored it, despite any flaws.  I cannot wait for the next series.


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