“Downton Abbey” (2010)

15 January 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a professor staring down the gun barrel of a new semester must be in want of an English costume drama. Clearly, the ITV series Downton Abbey has been offered for medicinal purposes — if for no other reason than the 1910s costumes themselves, which are the most luscious I’ve seen since The Forsyte Saga. (Need to get caught up? You can see the first episode here at the PBS website; the following episodes will air Sundays on most local affiliates.) Many thanks to my Dear Friend whose post got me started.

If period dramas and great outfits aren’t enough on their own to titillate your interest, there’s Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, and a large cast of faces familiar even to those of you who only make occasional forays into British film and TV. It seems that all period dramas are necessarily oriented around a courtship story; and all courtship stories set in the past seem to revolve around money and inheritance — in those respects at least Downton Abbey treads familiar ground. But it also adds the Upstairs/Downstairs (aka Gosford Park) element by throwing much of its attention to the estate’s many servants, individuals who can be loyal to a fault but who also harbor resentments and agendas of their own. The show’s producers have planned a second season and will reportedly start filming in March — so the medicine keeps coming, baby.

The family is in mourning for two cousins who died on the Titanic — and not just any cousins. One was the male heir due to inherit the Downton estate upon the death of the current Lord Grantham (Bonneville), and his son was due to marry Grantham’s daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery, above) to keep the estate within the family. The need to mourn their deaths means that within the first 30 minutes we find ourselves gazing at the best mourning jewelry ever — those deep black chiseled beads that signaled one’s sorrow, yet were elaborate, sexy items on their own, thus undermining the whole “mourning” thing. And indeed, Mary was a reluctant fiancée, so she’s not sorry to be released from an arranged marriage (and she can hardly wait to get out of her black clothes at the end of the mandated 3-month mourning period). We can look forward to more rebellion from her, it’s clear — as well as from her younger sister, Edith, whose disapproval of Mary has the potential to grow into something well-nigh treasonous. Even more important is the arrival of the new heir, a young lawyer raised in a solidly middle-class setting who holds no truck with having butlers, valets, and maids do all the work for him.

Plot developments like those prompt more exploration of the unique hierarchies, politics, and intrigues of the downstairs staff. American films virtually never explore the psychological micro-effects of class on the people who work for the wealthy — we rely on film imports for those stories — so watching these tales is fascinating. And even better that the wonderful Brendan Coyle (above, also known for his work as Higgins in North & South) plays John Bates, the new valet whose presence causes such a stir downstairs. Coyle is so good at showing us his quick intellect even when he’s expressing perfect deference to social superiors — he clearly brought his brain to work with him on this series, as usual.

This Sunday night appointment makes a great excuse to get those damn syllabi under control by then; hope you enjoy it, too.

4 Responses to ““Downton Abbey” (2010)”

  1. servetus Says:

    Fantastic opening line and so true.

  2. didion Says:

    So we’re three episodes in, and I’m starting to notice the ways that the show feels choppy and overly condensed from the much longer (7-episode) British version. Moreover, even though I’m still enjoying it, it doesn’t have the same appeal as so many of the other great British costumes dramas of recent memory — The Forsyte Saga and Little Dorrit spring to mind as exemplars of the genre. Is it the made-for-TV tale, rather than being based on a work of literature? Is it the ham-handed efforts to tie the story to major historical changes, like shifts in the class system. Oh, I don’t know…I feel vaguely dissatisfied.

  3. tam Says:

    Have seen some of Downton Abbey. Somehow too glossy for me. I much prefer the recently revived Upstairs Downstairs by BBC. Of course I watch just about anything with Keeley Hawes 🙂 They plan another 5 eps which is coming out in 2012.

    The original series which came out in the 1970s – and have been oft repeated over the years – was a classic.


    You might have a chuckle with this satire of Downtown Abbey that I stumbled across for a Comic Relief event:

    You’ll probably recognize the Ab Fab gals 🙂

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, this is just great. Simon Callow as Julian Fellowes (sounding here just like he does in interviews — daft and “modest”); the Ab Fab duo kicking some ass; references to every other costume drama around (“don’t I know you from Lark Piper Crumb Chesterford?” to which the Brendan Coyle character replies, “I’ve got a bit of a limp here, ma’am”); and a sneak appearance by Kim Cattrall. And a nice voiceover by Michael Gambon. Deserves a second look….

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