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The Classy, Wonderful 'Downton Abbey' Starts 2011 in Style

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jan 4th 2011 11:15AM

The year has barely begun but I already have a candidate for 2011's Top 10 Shows list.

'Downton Abbey,' which debuts 9 PM ET Sunday on PBS (check local listings), is a handsome period drama about an English upper-class family facing an inheritance crisis. At least that's the shorthand description for this terrific drama, which was a huge hit when it aired in the U.K.

No doubt 'Downton Abbey' did well is because it is, in part, an enthralling, lively soap opera about the secrets and heartaches that lurk in the elegant drawing rooms and the busy servants' wing of a very grand house. It also allows Dame Maggie Smith -- who is just one member of an exceptional cast -- to steal a number of comedic scenes as a doughty dowager countess straight out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel.

But this energetic and emotionally engaging drama has another agenda, one that makes 'Downton Abbey' much more than just a pretty period piece about lords and ladies and their harried maids and butlers.

Creator Julian Fellowes, who examined this world both playfully and thoughtfully in 'Gosford Park,' is clearly interesting in showing the cracks developing in England's social order during the era of post-Victorian twilight.

The fact that the England depicted in 'Downton Abbey' would crumble with the arrival of World War 1 gives the drama a sense of urgency and a very real air of poignance. The people in this world, whatever class they're from, have no sense of the disasters that are about to befall them.

When 'Downton Abbey' begins, however, England's titled upper crust is still running the show, thank you very much. But in the spring of 1912, a family crisis envelops the amiable Earl of Grantham, his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and their three daughters.

According to the property's "entail," only a male heir can inherit the vast property and the fortune the earl acquired when he married his wealthy wife. A male heir is just what Downtown doesn't have, however, and the earl isn't willing to legally challenge the entail, given that it would "hollow out" the title and leave the property's future owner with little money with which to run the vast estate.

It's hard not to see why the earl, who's played with admirable subtlety by Hugh Bonneville, is so devoted to Downton. It isn't just that the house has been in his family's possession for generations, it's simply a gorgeous place; the drama's deft, capable directors never let the viewer forget that. The dinner parties, the drawing-room scenes, the private confessions in well-tended gardens -- all of which is depicted with fluid grace -- makes it clear that this life was an aesthetically pleasing feast.

But for that world to work, all the people in it have to "know their place," thus change and aspiration are met at every turn with denial and polite condemnation. When an heir is finally located, the middle-class lawyer Matthew Crawley (not unlike the earl's own daughters) is uncomfortable with what's expected of him.

At one point, the well-intentioned Crawley tells his newly installed valet that the man's job is "silly." Crawley (Dan Stevens) dares to point out the absurdity of vast armies of servants devoted to the care of grown adults who could conceivably dress and feed themselves, and that kind of honesty is met with injured silence. Some of the servants, as it happens, are the most fearful snobs and just as invested in the status quo as the earl and his ferocious mother.

Despite the rigid class boundaries of the time, not all the house's inhabitants "know their place" or are especially interested in hanging on to the roles they've been handed. Fellowes clearly knows this world well, and 'Downton Abbey' is at its most interesting when it explores the bonds between servant and master with a knowing, curious intelligence.

Nobody knows more about the private pains and sorrows of the earl's family, the Crawleys, than the servants who live in tiny attic rooms above the grand salons. Natural human sympathies -- and even friendships -- are bound to spring up among the people who make Downtown Abbey their home, but some of the footmen and maids begin to question giving their lives to those who already have so much. The earl's daughters aren't much happier with their narrow existences.

Throughout the four parts of this series, Fellowes weaves together tales of love, money and social competition with verve and skill, and 'Downton's' fine ensemble cast is more than up to the task of bringing the earl's family and employees to life. Particular praise must be given to Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery, who share palpable chemistry as Matthew Crawley and his tart cousin, Lady Mary Crawley. Among the servants, Brendan Coyle is especially effective as the quietly charismatic valet Bates. Ruling over all of them is Smith, who plays the dowager countess with all the panache and charisma you'd expect of one of England's finest actresses.

If 'Downton Abbey' has one flaw, it's that not all characters in it emerge as fully fledged human beings. Cora's personal maid, O'Brien, is a one-dimensional, melodramatic character who grates at times, a young kitchen maid is almost absurdly innocent, and we only see glimpses of why the first footman, Thomas, is such a vengeful and cynical man. A few transitions aren't necessarily elegant; for instance, a conflict between Lady Mary, who would have inherited the estate had she been male, and her sister, Lady Edith, seems to almost spring up out of nowhere, though Lady Mary and her suffragist sister, Lady Sybil, emerge as sympathetic characters.

All in all, 'Downton Abbey' could not be more appropriate as the program to kick off Masterpiece's 40th season. Like all of the long-running series' best offerings, it skillfully unites superficial pleasures and intelligent undercurrents. Underneath its beautiful, nostalgic veneer, this handsome drama asks deep questions about human nature. What happens when desires are sublimated and hopes are either forsaken or channeled into another person's life? What happens when ambitions are dashed or unexpectely allowed to flourish? What does it cost the soul to live by social codes that subvert or block the desire for human connection?

Good questions all, ones that will no doubt be explored further in 'Downton's' second season, which has already been commissioned. This is one British invasion that needs to recommence as soon as possible.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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MM, that is exactly how I read the conflict between Edith and Mary. To be fair to Mary, I think she would have been happy if Edith could have had Patrick, and resents her sister for blaming her for the engagement. Although the fishing without bait line was needlessly nasty.

January 10 2011 at 7:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Read reviews & was expecting to like it. Was surprised how engaged I was just 15 minutes into the first episode.
Lady Edith was in love with Patrick, the young man 'engaged' to Lady Mary who died in the Titanic sinking. She is furious with her sister from the outset for not really caring about his death and for taking him from her in the first place. That is the source of what I expect is ongoing animosity.

January 10 2011 at 3:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Megan Rose

I don't like anything being cut. British real estate terminology IS different from that in the United States, but guess what? We're trainable and we can look things up; it should have been left in its original form. Brits always make fun of Americans, though, so don't take it to heart :)

January 10 2011 at 1:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Megan Rose

I saw the first episode last night. I think your review is "spot on" Mo. The only problem I had was that I was constantly comparing it to "Upstairs, Downstairs." But the introduction of the "poor relations" revved up the story quite a bit, so I'm thinking it will take its own course. Julian Fellowes is a great writer, it's beautiful to look at, and has quite an impressive cast. I'm going to continue watching it unless it turns into a copy of "Upstairs, Downstairs" which, by the way, also had the sinking of the Titanic in a plot line.

January 10 2011 at 1:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

There are some Brits that are making fun of American because PBS has cut 2 hours out of it due to pacing issues & they've also removed all references to British real estate terminology that we have no idea about.
What do you think of this?

January 05 2011 at 12:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to Garry's comment

I saw the first episode of this on Monday. It's just brilliant! Can't wait for the rest. Though I have so much on my to-see list that I'm not sure where to start!!

January 05 2011 at 12:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

Downton Abbey is the British Good Wife -- not generally the kind of show that goes to the top of 'must see' list, but the writing, cast (MAGGIE SMITH, FTW!) and production are seductive as Russell Tovey on a bed of lettuce. :)

BTW, have you seen the BBC Wales revival of classic period soap 'Upstairs Downstairs' that screened in the UK last month? Basically a mini-series (three episodes screened over three nights), and I don't know if a full second series has been commissioned but I understand the ratings were more than respectable.

Are we looking at a revival of the full-dress British costume soap?

January 04 2011 at 2:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You had me at "Gosford Park." Have set my tivo up with a season pass. So excited about this! Thanks for writing about it and bringing it to our attention.

January 04 2011 at 12:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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