Downton Abbey (2010-2015) addicted so many American viewers in its Masterpiece Classic showings that the British costume drama was nicknamed “Edwardian Crack.” Yeah, it’s a crude American remark about a classy British production, but it’s oddly appropriate. Downton Abbey is an elegantly-mounted production with the look and lavish detail of a feature film, but it is also an unabashed soap opera with pure melodrama under the social register credentials. Which is part of the fun.
Creator / writer Julian Fellowes (an Oscar winner for his Gosford Park screenplay) marries the Upstairs Downstairs template of that film with the stately style of recent British literary telefilms and miniseries. The series drops us into the Edwardian era of the 1910s to chronicle the last generation of this kind of class society, where the servants—at least those born to the service career—are as invested in the social culture of manners and conventions as the aristocrats they serve.
Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, the conservative but compassionate patriarch of the Crawley clan, landed gentry with inherited land, a massive manor home, and little income. In fact, the family is largely sustained by the dowry of Robert’s American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). They also have three daughters and no sons, which is an issue because the Crawley title and the estate are, by law, exclusively passed down to male heirs. They place hope in the marriage of Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), their eldest, to a cousin. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of drama among the servants, from romances and jealousies to wicked schemes and their own kind of class snobbery in the hierarchy of position.
Dan Stevens became a small screen heartthrob playing the handsome Matthew Crawley, a distant cousin and presumptive heir apparent whose chemistry with Lady Mary is palpable from their first meeting. Jim Carter, a veteran of British TV cinema, runs the team of servants as Mr. Carson, essentially the downstairs patriarch, determined to maintain efficiency, decorum, and tradition. And Maggie Smith gave her esteemed career new life delivering tart comments and withering glances as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, who grouses at every break with tradition and bemoans how the aristocracy no longer receives its due respect.
It won six Primetime Emmy Awards in its inaugural season, including outstanding miniseries and prizes for writing, directing, and actress Maggie Smith, and two BAFTAs.
The first season opens in the wake of the sinking of the Titanic and ends with the outbreak of World War I, which is well underway as Season Two begins, adding to the romantic complications, scandals, and power plays on both sides of the class divide. Even turning the manor house into a military hospital doesn’t ruffle their decorum (though it does upend their daily routine). Through it all, Lady Mary and heir apparent Matthew continue dancing around their mutual attraction even as they get engaged to others and her younger sister, Lady Sybill (Jessica Brown Findlay), falls in love with Tom Branson (Allen Leach), their new chauffeur, Lord Crawley tries to find some kind of purpose while younger men fight overseas, and Mr. Carson strives to run a tight household on limited staff.
Season Three is a season of weddings and funerals, births and deaths, and an aristocracy stuck in the past dragged indignantly into the 20th century. Our paternal patriarch Lord Robert is desperately looking for funds to keep his manor solvent after losing a fortune in a bad investment and thinks he might find it in his wife’s American mother (Shirley Maclaine). The social wrestling match between Maclaine’s lively American widow, embracing the modern age with a vengeance, and Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess and her withering comments, in the opening episodes is the season’s highlight.
Meanwhile new son-in-law Matthew bucks tradition and Lord Crawley to modernize the manor with the help of his working class brother-in-law (Allen Leach), an Irish social activist reluctantly learning the social manners of his new family culture. And in perhaps the most revealing storyline of the season, valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle), framed for murder and serving time in a brutal prison, proves to be a quick study of prison culture and masters the rules of survival with a cold-blooded focus. Apparently the servant class culture teaches survival skills for all situations. Finally, Lily James joins the cast as the vivacious young cousin Rose, a role that helped propel the young actress to stardom.
Season Four opens in the wake of a death in the heart of the family and, with the house still in mourning, paternal patriarch Lord Crawley is determined to take charge. Fellowes uses the turn of events to address such antiquated laws of inheritance in 20th century England, albeit with dignified restraint, just as the series gingerly addresses chauvinism, rape, and prejudice, the latter as the fun-loving young cousin Rose (Lily James) secretly dates a black American jazz singer (Gary Carr). Mary blossoms in her new role as a manager of the estate (much to the frustration of her father) while courted by two suitors and, in proper Upstairs, Downstairs fashion, the servants deal with their own dramas and romantic tribulations, with lives spilling over the social division. Opera legend Kiri Te Kanawa guest stars in an early episode. The extended season finale “The London Season” brings the characters to London for Rose to be presented to the king and queen and brings back Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s brash American mother, this time accompanied by her playboy brother Harold (Paul Giamatti).
Season Five eases us into 1924 as times are changing—a Labour government has been voted into power and class mobility and education are themes for the season—but change is slow. Lord Crawley once again stands in for the conservative class that sees social change as some kind of affront to tradition while Lady Mary unexpectedly takes a stand for sexual freedom when she rather daringly (and secretly) agrees to an unchaperoned holiday with a beau to test out their compatibility in consideration of marriage. There are plenty of subplots (sister Edith conspires to adopt the son she secretly had out of wedlock and Mr. Bates is yet again under suspicion of murder) but the season focuses on bubbly cousin Rose and her marriage to the son of a Jewish businessman, which brings out bigotry on both sides of the family.
The sixth and final season delivers happy endings all around, as if rewarding viewers for their devotion to the lives of the wealthy and the service classes alike. Tom returns to the family manor, there are marriages (both among the aristocrats and the servants) and opportunities for the characters to grow and learn as the series observes the passing of an era (one family is forced to sell their manor and the Crawleys open their home to visitors as a fundraiser), and cousin Rose comes back for the finale. And of course Maggie Smith offers her hilariously withering commentary throughout at Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess.
The mix of wistful idealization of this world of privilege and ritual and wily critique of the aristocracy who embrace privilege as their duty and their right is so smooth it’s hard to separate one from the other. The way the servant class is just as invested in the social hierarchy (complete with a rigid hierarchy of their own) contributes to this perspective on the culture.
But as likable as our privileged family members may be, creator / writer Fellowes keeps showing us that they are dinosaurs leftover from an earlier age. It’s not hard to see them as the same silly class, oblivious to the reality of the world around them, as the doomed aristocracy of Jean Renoir’s masterpiece Rules of the Game, but Fellowes holds out some hope for this family, thanks to the modern ideas of some of its younger members and the innate compassion of its veterans. The pillars of old-world tradition are eased into the modern world with a warm embrace while the show celebrates the rituals and social codes of this way of life without irony. Which is probably how the show managed to become so beloved.
Downton Abbey quickly became the most popular show on Britain’s ITV and on PBS in the U.S., and then grew into one of the most watched shows in the world. It won 15 Primetime Emmy Awards over the run of the show, including three trophies for Maggie Smith, and after its conclusion the feature film Downton Abbey (2019) brought the cast and the characters back to continue the story.
Rated TV-PG, 52 episodes over five seasons.
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Downton Abbey: The Complete Series Collection [Blu-ray]
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Downton Abbey: Complete Series (individual sets) [DVD]
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