I’ve never been especially interested in “period dramas,” but I heard about Downton Abbey, and thought I’d check it out. The first two seasons have already been broadcast in the UK, and are available on DVD. In the US, the second season is starting today on PBS.
This is a series about a quintessential British country manor. The house looks huge, even though you only see a handful of rooms in the show. There is an aristocratic family, headed by the Earl of Grantham, a surprisingly liberal aristocrat. He has an American wife, and three daughters. Downstairs are the servants, an interesting crew of footman, maids and cooks. Much of the story involves the relations between the two groups, as well as the romantic doings of the sisters.
Yes, this is an upscale soap opera, not my usual type of TV. But from the very first episode, I was drawn into the wonderful writing (coming close to Aaron Sorkin’s work) and the excellent acting of the entire cast. I didn’t know many of the actors, but one who stands out is the venerable Maggie Smith who gets a large number of bon mots, as the Dowager Countess and the Earl’s mother. There is quite a large cast for a series, allowing for a number of story lines to take place concurrently, yet you never get a feeling that there’s too much going on.
The series manages to be extremely interesting throughout, without slipping into overt soap opera situations, and factors in the events of the time. Beginning in 1912, the day after the sinking of the Titanic, it goes on through World War I, which has a major role in the series.
It’s important to not watch the US versions of the first season. The seven one-hour episodes were, for some reason, cut down to four 90-minute episodes for the US. You can see a number of different versions here on Amazon.com, with both the US versions and UK versions available. Or you can get them for much less from Amazon UK. The iTunes Store sells the unedited UK versions.
It’s worth noting that after the end of season 2 there is a 90-minute episode called Christmas at Downton Abbey. The title suggests that it’s just some kind of Christmas story, but it’s actually the season finale, and you simply must see it after watching all of season 2.
I was surprised to be so attracted to this series, but the quality of the writing and acting is well above average. Even if you don’t usually care for this sort of thing, I’d recommend checking it out. You may, like me, become an immediate convert.