Last month I started a new thing by asking you to suggest titles from the Netflix Instant library for me to watch. You choose it, I review it. I got a lot of good suggestions and put everything into a list then closed my eyes and pointed. The result? The BBC miniseries Downton Abbey (submitted by commenter Clementine). When I added Downton Abbey to my queue, Netflix suggested another BBC miniseries, the three-part Sherlock Holmes starring Benedict Cumberbatch (that NAME) and Martin Freeman (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the young Bilbo in The Hobbit). So I added Sherlock, too. It was really good—I didn’t know it was set in the present but that worked out well for the show. I’d recommend checking it out. Cumberbatch is oddly sexy as the socially retarded Sherlock.
Now, Downton Abbey. WHY had I not already seen this? That’s what I kept thinking as I watched the seven episode series. I love this British period stuff! Created by actor Julian Fellowes (he also wrote Gosford Park and The Young Victoria), Downton Abbey follows the lives of the residents of the eponymous estate. The Crawley family are the Earls of Grantham and in 1912, when the series begins, they’re dealt a serious blow when both heirs to the estate, the cousins of the present earl Robert (Hugh Bonneville, Notting Hill), die on the Titanic. This leaves the succession in confusion as there are no other near relatives.
Robert has three daughters: haughty Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Red Riding and Hanna), sensible but plain Lady Edith (newcomer Laura Carmichael), and the spirited would-be suffragette Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay, Misfits). None of Robert’s daughters can inherit under the law, and though his American-heiress wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Kick-Ass), brought a substantial fortune into the marriage, it has all been added to the estate. The early episodes revolve around Cora and her mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), trying to figure out how to get Cora’s money back—they can’t without destroying the estate with crushing tax payments.
The solution? Robert’s next-nearest cousin, a distant relation from Manchester, a solicitor by trade, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens, BBC’s Sense & Sensibility). Matthew’s family is solidly middle-class, well-removed from the lifestyle of their more illustrious cousins. Upon his arrival at Downton he’s treated like a country bumpkin but it becomes very clear very quickly that Matthew is an intelligent man—exactly the kind of forward-thinking person you could see navigating a place like Downton through the turbulent early 20th century. The family’s hope is that Matthew and Lady Mary will form a connection and save everyone through their marriage but the two take an immediate dislike to one another. Which, of course.
But Downton Abbey doesn’t just follow the lives of the Crawley family, but also focuses—perhaps even moreso—on the lives of the servants who run the house. Just as the family is thrown into chaos with the succession crisis, so the “downstairs” is subjected to the upheaval of the earl’s new valet, Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle, TV’s Jericho). Thanks to this miniseries I now know that “valet” is pronounced val-let, and not val-lay. Mr. Bates is an old war buddy of the earl’s and now, down on his luck, Robert has given Mr. Bates one of the most coveted positions in the household. This throws a young footman’s nose out of joint as he was hoping to get the job. Thomas (Rob James-Collier, Coronation Street) is the closest thing to a villain Downton Abbey has and you spend most of the time wanting to kick him in the nuts.
This is why Downton Abbey is so fascinating. As much as all the social-scheming/legal realities of life in a great house are interesting, it’s the lives of the servants that really fascinate. The butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter, Alice in Wonderland) loves The Family like they’re his own. The final scene of the series is an image of Carson comforting Lady Mary after she’s run off Matthew with her indecision (he took it for more haughtiness). And the housekeeper, Mrs.Hughes (Phyllis Logan, MI-5) rejects her childhood sweetheart to stay with The Family. This is a loyalty I don’t understand. I mean you’re servants! No matter how well The Family treats you—you’re servants! Yet they’re not only content to be there but really happy about it. They take enormous pride in running Downton and serving The Family. When a housemaid aspires to be a secretary the other staff are angered/offended by her supposed defection.
But the real heart of Downton Abbey lays with Maggie Smith and her portrayal of Violet, the Dowager Countess. She’s a crusty old dragon that terrifies/terrorizes her family but Violet is a dedicated and passionate matriarch. Though she spends a lot of time putting down Matthew and his mother, it’s Violet who encourages Lady Mary to make a go of it with Matthew, recognizing that not only is he the only way to “save” Downton, but that he would be a good match for her granddaughter. Austere and snobbish, Violet is also genuinely clueless about some things. Throughout the series she clashes with Matthew’s mother, Mrs. Crawley (Penelope Wilton, Match Point), and their scuffle comes to a head at the annual village flower show. Mrs. Crawley, a plain-spoken woman used to doing for herself, bluntly points out that Violet wins the “Grantham Cup” for best blooms every years because she’s the Dowager Countess of Grantham, when in fact, the father of a Downton footman really has the best blooms. It’s hilarious until it’s touching when Violet gives up the Cup. Downton Abbey is worth watching just for Smith alone.
Throughout the seven episodes there are plots about the sisters—Lady Mary and Lady Edith take turns destroying each other’s marital chances and Lady Sybil helps the aforementioned maid find a job—that keep the story moving along, as well as the scheming of Thomas and Cora’s lady’s maid, O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran, Boy A). O’Brien, particularly, has a heart-breaking subplot involving Cora’s surprise pregnancy and the hope for a future heir. And Mr. Bates and Anna (Joanne Froggatt, BBC’s Robin Hood), the head housemaid, have a sweet romantic subplot that alleviated the sour from the sisters’ cattiness. Downton Abbey is in turns soap opera and fascinating period piece and it’s highly watchable. My only quibble? They could not have picked an uglier estate to stand in for Downton.