It all started when I was keeping an eye out for shows to recommend to my friend who was really into the British series Lark Rise to Candleford. There was another much-hyped series from the UK called “Downton Abbey” that I told her to watch. Set in the early 20th century, the show follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the Earl of Grantham, his family, and their servants. After Entertainment Weekly (my pop culture Bible) did a full feature article on it, I knew I had to give Downton a try myself as well. To my amazement, for a show with no supernatural powers, no alternate universes, no time travel or flashbacks, I was completely addicted after only a couple of episodes. At first I wasn’t sure what (besides the haunting theme music) kept me eagerly watching episode after episode when I should have been going to sleep. In the hopes of creating new converts to share the obsession, I’d like to explain the 5 reasons why I love Downton Abbey.
1. All the characters are interesting
Credit to writer/creator, Julian Fellowes, who was able to make characters that I cared about and wanted to see more of after only a few scenes. Given the cast of about a dozen regulars and many more recurring ones, this is not an easy task. Everyone from the heroes down to the villains and background characters all have bits and pieces to their stories that make you want to give a second look. Obviously there’s main characters (especially the couples) such as Lady Mary (eldest daugher of the Earl) and Matthew (distant cousin to the Earl and his new heir) who have a romance full of obstacles and you just wait for them to understand their own feelings and get the timing right. The other power couple is Bates (valet to the Earl) and Anna (head housemaid) whose love gradually grows as their adversities increase — everyone roots for them. But there’s also naive kitchen maid Daisy, scheming house maid O’Brien, unglamourous middle daughter Lady Edith, or by-the-books butler Carson who all seem somewhat plain until their stories take little twists and we see another side, another dimension to these otherwise two-dimensional characters. I don’t want to spoil the show by telling you more about them, but trust me, it’s difficult to consider any of these characters as throwaway or incidental.
2. The plot is speedy
For a show where the action is mostly characters conversing in drawing rooms or dining rooms, it’s hard to believe how much actually happens to them all over the course of two relatively short seasons. Granted, season two skipped ahead so that we’re already in WWI by the time the season begins, but with the end of each episode I can’t wait to find out what happens next. The only other show I watch where the events move this quickly is The Vampire Diaries; but in Downton (unlike in Mystic Falls) no one dies and comes back to life (well, almost no one).
3. Everything’s so pretty
Let’s start with the castle itself. It looks quite impressive with its long hallways of many rooms. The grounds also appear nicely groomed (though there is no gardener character on the show). The interior sets also are wonderfully decorated. If I had a manor, I’d want it to be Downton Abbey. The costumes are attractive and nicely designed. Typically the clothing is a very big part of a costume drama. From the great-looking suits on the men to the tasteful jewellery and gowns of the women, it’s nice to see this kind of “lived-in” elegance. Even the servants are always dressed up (by today’s standards). There’s a charming, winking scene where Lord Grantham is experimenting with a “dinner jacket”, which would be formal wear by today’s standards, but he doesn’t wear it for fear of appearing too casual!
4. Manners cost us nothing
It’s refreshing for a show to be so polite and well-mannered. It’s not just that everyone speaks very properly, or that characters refer to each other formally: “milords” and “miladys” abound. Even Anna calls her beloved “Mr. Bates” for most of their courtship. There’s a calming effect that everyone’s nice language and behaviour puts over things. Even when someone is furious, you’d hardly know it from how restrained they all act (watch for men who have to fix their suave hair after a heated encounter).
5. Maggie Smith as The Dowager Countess Violet Grantham
I loved her well enough as Prof. Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies. Nevertheless (and I know I’ve actually already commented on characters), the character of the Dowager Countess is a great, standout role (and a complete scene stealer). Not only does she get to do things however she wants (and she’s got some good old-fashioned ideas), she’s also got the best lines. Violet says whatever she wants to whoever she wants, taking shots from a safe distance, but that doesn’t stop her from being civilized and proper. She also likes to give unsolicited advice and is very strong-willed — I can’t wait to see her go head-to-head with Shirley MacLaine next season as rival in-laws. Check out this video of the best Dowager Countess moments.
Downton Abbey is the kind of series that has broad appeal (including to those who may not have a taste for Edwardian melodrama). It’s been a huge success in England and its status as a hit in North America’s is clearly shown by the way it wins Emmy awards and beats out competing shows that are also up against the Super Bowl. If you like things that are British, low key, and really enjoyable, you must make a visit to Downton.
P.S. For Downton Abbey fans, here are two great YouTube links:
Advert for “A Very Carson Christmas” album (This is a riot. You must watch this! Carson does Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. I was in tears with laughter.)