Jan 12, 2012

[TV] Downton Abbey: Season 1

I tend to think of period dramas as a bit of a mixed back. At times they can be wonderfully engaging and they really get you to emotionally invest in the lives of the characters and the history of the period. In other cases, they become long, dragging and difficult to associate with given the cultural differences developed over time. And I don't have a clear formula as to which ones fall into the category of shows that I'll most likely enjoy versus those that won't get even a third of my attention on a bad day.

I became increasingly curious about this show after the buzz the show generated over various blogs and eventually among some of my online contacts. I can appreciate smart and witty series, even if there are no Great Houses, interstellar empires or other such elements involved, mind you. It really depends on how well the whole thing comes together.

With little expectations from this series other than some excitement over seeing Maggie Smith in a TV series, I came in without a clear idea of what I was getting into and left pretty much hooked on the series. Stellar stuff.

Downton Abbey is a British period drama series created by Julian Fellowes for the ITV network. Fellowes is also the principal writer for the series, which has been named as "the most critically acclaimed English-language television show" for 2011 by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Highclere Castle
Image via Wikipedia
The show centers around the fictional Crawley family who reside at Downton Abbey as befits the Earl of Grantham. However news of the sinking of the RMS Titanic includes the tragic news that the heir presumptive had also died in the tragic accident. Thus the current Earl, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) must face the reality that his lack of a male heir means the loss of both the estate and naturally the title. Adding insult to injury, the Earldom had previously been saved by his marriage to American Cora Crawley  (Elizabeth McGovern) primarily for her considerable fortune. But now that it is part of the estate, her assets will also eventually transition to the next in line, this being a distant cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).

The other side of the story involves the considerable staff that keeps the estate run. This includes the stern and highly detailed Butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter), the similarly dispositioned Elsie Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and whole host of other characters. This includes a new addition in the form of John Bates (Bredan Coyle) as Lord Grantham's valet despite having a lame leg and needing the use of a cane to move around. And since one of the footmen, Thomas (William Mason), wanted that position for himself, he then focuses on trying to undermine Bates and get him removed from the household.

Now the excitement of the show is not the type that involves fast cars, gun fights or even swashbuckling heroes. Instead it's all about the rather political tensions that run behind the scenes as the question of succession for the title and the estate remains rather up in the air. Thus you get a lot of polite sniping within casual conversation, especially between the Dowager Countess Violet (Dame Maggie Smith) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) the mother of the new heir. Both are phenomenal actresses, especially given how Doctor Who fans will recognize Penelope Wilton as Harriet Jones on the show. While we probably could have a show dedicated to the verbal barbs between the two characters, they still work in the larger tapestry of things.

At first it may seem a bit confusing to figure out all the different characters, their roles in this slice of the aristocracy plus all the different servants. But if you give at least the first episode sufficient focus, then the rest of the show will eventually fall into place.

It's interesting how the show plays on so many levels, quite literally based on their perceived social classes. The servants of the household seem to live in a completely different world where it matters whether or not a footman answers the door versus the butler or whether or not a maid can serve food at the dinner table. And beyond the every day squabbles, there's the question of trying to find their place in the world and even the most remote of chances for any of them to actually leave service and established completely different lives of their own.

And I never really thought I'd get this involved in a story that pretty much just dances around the old aristocracy. And I dragged my partner into things to boot and now he feels like planning out a gaming session for the Houses of the Blooded RPG. And inspiring Tobie to run a game session in this manner is pretty significant, for those who lack the context of a gamer.

I'll acknowledge this isn't the type of show for everyone, however if you appreciate a good drama with a fair amount of plot intricacies. In other words, it's a soap opera without the sex and evil twins and a heck of a lot more drama, witty banter and dirty looks in civilized society.

Downton Abbey is a show that will surprise you and it's certainly worth the time to watch, I assure you. I rate this first season a strong 4.5 lines of snippy dialog from the Dowager Countess Grantham out of a possible 5.

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