by Coop Cooper
I never thought I would care about “Masterpiece Theater” on PBS, but it seems even stuffy British period TV dramas can be compelling under the right talent. With three seasons completed, “Downtown Abbey” has slowly but surely become the talk of the internet and entertainment circles.
“Abbey” follows the lives of the Crawley family, lead by the Earl of Grantham and their servants at a wealthy English estate in the early 1900’s. The highborn family follows strict traditions and the servants work hard to maintain their positions until word comes down the family heir has been killed during the sinking of the Titanic. This throws years of tradition to question as both family and servants are subjected to modernism, social changes and World War I. Throughout the series, the characters endure marriages, betrayals, happy reunions and tragic deaths. As the years pass, the future of Downton Abbey remains perpetually uncertain.
The main characters include the honorable Earl, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), his rich American wife (Elizabeth McGovern) and their three daughters who are unable to inherit the family wealth. The new heir to the house is a distant cousin and lawyer Matthew (Dan Stevens) who is not comfortable with his newfound title and is being pressured to marry the eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery) to secure the family fortune. The stern but fair house butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and the head housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) attempt to keep the servant drama to a minimum. A gentle, disabled valet, Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) must face his shady past while romancing a kindly house maid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt). Meanwhile, the jealous footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and duplicitous maid Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) jockey for control of the house staff.
The interesting thing about “Downton Abbey” is it’s the most talked about series to come out of the PBS since “Sesame Street.” While the show is technically British and marketed as one of their dry “Masterpiece Theater” offerings, “Abbey” is the most well-written and addictive show to come out of the venerable (40 years + and counting) series. It’s soapy and often sappy but alliances change, good characters go bad and vice-versa, the acting is exemplary and the writing/plotting is on par with the best that cable has to offer.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the show is education it provides on the British royal caste system and how their lives compare, contrast and intermingle with their servants. As the times change, traditions and roles threaten to change and do in the most dramatic ways. The show even challenges modern social issues and taboos that were even more scandalous for the time period.
By far, the best character in the show is played by “Harry Potter’s” Mrs. McGonagall, Maggie Smith. She plays the family matriarch – the Dowager Countess of Grantham – Violet Crawley who wields no actual authority, but is a master of wit and manipulation. The show sets her up early as a cunning villain but she quickly proves her true benevolent intentions despite her wry sniping and scheming. Every single line of dialogue she speaks is pure gold. She has won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and many other awards for the role which are testaments to her overwhelming prowess on the show. One could watch the show for her character alone.
Luckily her character is accompanied by many other great ones, each with their own story-lines filled with sorrow and joy. There are also running gags such as telegrams which always bring bad news, phrases like “May I have a word?” signaling an imminent confrontation, the rampant eavesdropping and snide characters always making deliciously clever remarks at precisely the right moments.
The show is available on PBS to anyone with a TV but can also be viewed on Netflix, Amazon Instant and many other sources.
“Downton Abbey” rating: 5 out of 5 stars