If, by some chance, you have managed to miss out on seeing the cultural phenomenon that is “Downton Abbey,” now is your chance to catch up on the Sunday night obsession from the very beginning. Every season of the smash hit British import is now available with XFINITY On Demand and XFINITYTV.com throughout all of XFINITY Watchathon Week (March 25-31).
On the (very well produced) surface, “Downton” is a British period drama co-produced by Carnival Films and Masterpiece about the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants during the post-Edwardian era set in a sprawling country house in Yorkshire, England. The large ensemble cast is comprised of actors largely unknown to American audiences making it very easy for viewers to feel as if they’re being transported back in time within minutes of hearing the show’s now iconic theme over the opening credits. Everything down to the smallest detail is authentic to the period thanks series creator Julian Fellowes’ obsessive interest in the history of the British aristocracy and the minutiae of their existence. The other main character of the show is the house itself. The beloved ‘Downton’ is actually Highclere Castle used for the stunning exterior shots and most of the ‘upstairs’ interiors where the Granthams entertain and live.
There is a certain lovely melancholy to “Downton Abbey” since viewers know that the period in which the show is set where a certain class lived in these great houses populated by servants and enjoyed an exceedingly grand way of life will not exist beyond World War II. Indeed, the unifying aspect among the characters is their varying degrees of acceptance and denial in dealing with the inevitable changes that come as a result of the First World War and continue into 1920 by the end of season two.
Watch the First Episode of “Downton Abbey”:
At its heart, Downton is a melodrama about class, but interestingly the series often underscores the similarities, rather than the differences, between the wealthy and the underclass. Hearts get broken, young people die; lives are upended in an instant and no amount of privilege can change that. Time and time again, these people need each other to feel good about their lives. Everyone is so certain of their purpose and place in the hierarchy and there’s a certain ‘I say old bean’ comfort in that.
Here’s my top four reasons why you should be watching “Downton Abbey:”
You don’t have to be an Anglophile to love it.
Sure it’s British and all that, but when you get right down to it, Downton is a high class soap opera. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Quite the contrary. The series has it all: rich people fighting over money, a resident ‘super couple,’ servants that both worship and resent them star crossed lovers and some really great real estate.
The central plot, in a nutshell:
Upstairs, the Crawley family is headed by Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). He is married to wealthy American heiress Cora (played by Elizabeth McGovern). When couple tied the knot, she signed over her fortune and it became part of the Downton estate. It was expected that Cora would bear a son and he would inherit the estate. Instead she had three daughters, the eldest, haughty Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), the often overlooked Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and the rebellious, young Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Robert’s mother Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) forges an alliance with Cora to marry Mary off to Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a distant cousin who becomes Downton’s heir because of some complicated British law that disallows females from inheriting the family fortune. A ‘middle class’ outsider and solicitor from Manchester, he struggles with the trappings of his new life as Downton’s heir. Matthew and Mary’s love affair is complicated by several factors including money (what else?), the First World War and two inconvenient romances.
Downstairs, there is plenty of intrigue. The dastardly footman Thomas (Rob James Collier) and wicked lady’s maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) conspire against the stoic valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) while saintly head housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) pines for him. A whole host of assorted housekeepers and cooks keep things quite lively in the servants’ hall.
You’ll feel smarter after watching
Downton has a swanky pedigree – and it shows. Fellowes, the series’ sole writer, won as Oscar for his screenplay for “Gosford Park.” Every episode is framed by historical events which play an important role in shaping the fates of the characters. In the first season, the lives of the Crawley family are set against the sinking of the Titanic up through the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Season two picks up with several members of the household serving in the war starting with the Battle of the Somme in 1916 culminating with the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. A history lesson disguised as entertainment!
It features some of the best actors you’ve never heard of
The actors’ relative anonyminity among American audience (except for American-born actress Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville who is most likely known best to the stateside viewing audience as the guy with the wife in the wheelchair in “Notting Hill”) make watching Downton a transporting experience where there are no distractions. Everyone is really, really good in their roles. I particularly love Jim Carter. His wonderfully expressive face (those eyebrows should have their own Twitter handle), deadpan delivery and baritone voice, was born to play Mr. Carson, the butler determined to keep modernity at bay by keeping everything in order. Unlikely leading man Brendan Coyle, who plays valet John Bates, isn’t exactly a hard bodied stud with his slightly pockmarked face and slightly doughy physique but that hasn’t stopped his growing female fan base (which includes Jamie Lee Curtis) from fancying him. McGovern, who some people over forty might remember as the fresh faced teenage girl of Timothy Hutton in “Ordinary People” back in the eighties, actually looks her age and as a result is completely believable as the mother of three twenty-something young women.
Everyone is talking about it
“Downton Abbey” is the most watched series on Britain’s ITV and here in the states it’s managed to pull in a record number of viewers thus making PBS as cool as it is smart. (In January of this year, the third season scored a record number of viewers – 7.9 million. By comparison “Mad Men” notched a best ever 2.7 million for last season’s finale) The series is PBS’s most successful British costume drama since “Brideshead Revisited” and that was in 1981! Nominated for 27 Emmy Awards, it holds the record for most nods ever given to a non-US show. It’s even snagged a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘the most critically acclaimed television show’ of 2011. Perhaps the best indicator of its well-earned spot on the pop cultural radar is the countless parodies everywhere from YouTube to Yahoo Screen’s “Downton Arby’s” to “Saturday Night Live.” No doubt you’ve found yourself on line at Starbucks on Monday morning within earshot of impassioned talk of the lives and loves of Downton’s inhabitants — “Do you think Matthew and Mary will ever be happy?” “Why do the Granthams keep O’Brien and Thomas around since they’re so nasty?” Do you really want to miss out on all the fun? Of course not.
It’s got Maggie Smith
Forget Betty White. Maggie Smith is a Dame (really!) that can deliver a zinger like no other actress in recent memory. The two-time Oscar winner is, at 78, one of television’s hottest stars at the moment. As Violet, the Dowager Countess, she’s the super ego of Downton (after all, she’s the one that tries to save mealy Mr. Moseley and sweet, naïve William, her favorite footman, from military service ) and can always be counted on to sum a situation from her perch in the library or dining room with one-liners tailor made for T-shirts. Violet has had too many memorable bon mots to list here (Google ‘Favorite Dowager Countess Quotes’ and you’ll see what I mean). Among the best of the lot: “Don’t be defeatist dear, it’s very middle class,” “What is a weekend?” and “Nothing succeeds like excess.” Her verbal sparing with Cousin Isobel is particularly amusing:
Dowager Countess: “You are quite wonderful the way you see room for improvement wherever you look, I never knew such reforming zeal.”
Isobel: “I take that as a compliment.”
D.C: “I must have said it wrong.”
What are you waiting for? Get started on season one now.
Diane Clehane is a New York Times best seller author and journalist who writes on her many obsessions: television, fashion, pop culture, parenthood, the British royal family, and Downton Abbey.