Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Highs and Lows of Downton Abbey

I’ll be the first to admit that I was initially very reluctant to start watching PBS’s Masterpiece Classic series Downton Abbey.  The premise of a series set in the early nineteen hundreds concerning a upper class British family and their servants struck me as a bit…well, British.  I was expecting a lot of very fine acting among beautiful antique sets, but also a lot of herumphing, turning up noses, and having tea.  Not exactly the most thrilling stuff.  And I will be the first to admit that I was dead wrong.
Downton Abbey is undeniably British: the sets are gorgeous, the acting is top-class, and the British class system is very present.  But to say that the show is a dusty old gentleman’s affair would be a downright lie.  The show hooks you in from its very start, and takes you for a ride that holds you on the edge of your seat the entire time.  Who knew so much drama could happen in one house?
Admittedly, the house is rather large.  In fact, it’s pretty much a castle, especially by American standards.  The series concerns the incredibly wealthy Crawley family and their estate, Downton Abbey.  The main family consists of the patriarch, Lord Grantham (played by with whimsical charm by Hugh Bonneville), his wife, and their three daughters.  Maggie Smith steals the show as Lord Grantham’s mother – both utterly cunning and deeply caring, she is a revelation in nearly every scene she is in.  I had my favorites of the family from the start, but each character grows significantly through each season, and each actor inhabits their character with amazing grace and humanity.  I do have a bit of trouble believing the mother at times – perhaps this stems from the fact that she is the only American actress on the show, and her style clashes with the overall production occasionally.  For the most part, however, the Crawleys are incredibly relatable, which I found to be very surprising considering their elite status.  Despite having such high positions in society, each character is capable of making mistakes (and they all make them), which makes them agonizingly human.
The other side of this story of course concerns the “downstairs” – the help.  All of the actors in this faction are incredible character actors.  From wicked plotters like O’Brien and Thomas to honest workers like Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, these characters are a force all their own.  The link that holds all of them together is their dreams of being more than the help someday, and it is that hope that propels them all forward down their respective paths.  The head butler, Mr. Carson, and the Richard III – inspired footman Thomas steal the show repeatedly, especially when they butt heads.  But the real magic happens when the two worlds of upstairs and downstairs collide.  The best example I can think of is the relationship between Mr. Carson and Lady Mary, the eldest of the Crawley daughters.  Carson has taken care of Mary since she was a little girl, and they always seem to find each other when they are doubting or hurting the most.  Being a British show, the emotions can become incredibly high, but the actors are incredibly subtle in portraying them, and it can be riveting to watch.
The main plot of the series stems from the death of Lord Grantham’s heir.  Without a son, the estate and the family’s money is now up in the air, and eventually will land in the hands of a cousin, Matthew Crawley.  The family is understandably upset at the prospect of a distant cousin inheriting everything they own, and much of the first season deals with the fallout this situation crates.  Matthew comes to Downton with his mother in tow, and must prove himself to his new family.  And while Lord Grantham welcomes him with open arms, the rest of the family (Mary in particular) takes more time to make up their minds.
Of course whenever you have a large group of people in one place relationships are bound to happen, and Downton Abbey certainly does not disappoint in this category.  There are all kinds of romances – forbidden, unexpected, true, false, beautiful, painful.  Initially the feelings tend to start out in a subtle fashion, but as the series goes on everything grows and flourishes.  I would say that things can lean towards the melodramatic at times (particularly in season 2, which introduces World War I), but all in all the chemistry between most characters is very believable.  And with so many things trying to prevent the romances to happen, I often found myself rooting for them in the most unlikely circumstances.  I found myself caring about the happiness of these characters, and how close they come to it while still be far, far away.  In particular, Mary (played by Michelle Dockery) starts off as a character who is incredibly hard to understand.  But her relationship with Matthew opens her up to the viewer, and once we see who she really is, we have no choice but to care for her well-being just as much as Carson does.
While the characters are certainly the main focus of the show, praise must be given to the costumes, sets, lighting, music, and all things technical.  The show is beautiful to watch, and the period work is truly stunning.  One of the funnier moments in the show occurs when the house gets a telephone for the first time, and Carson tries to figure out how to use it.  The introduction of a gramophone yields similar results, and on top of that leads to a heartbreaking scene as well.  All of these elements come together wonderfully to support the story, and the flawlessness of it is truly remarkable.
So while initially Downton Abbey may seem cold and remote, the characters bring the story to life and suck you into their hopes and dreams, their blunders and graces.  While things can get a bit overly dramatic at times, I found myself believing in the characters and their journeys because of the smallest things.  There are the tiniest, simplest moments that occur between characters that could happen to anyone in any time, and it is these small flashes of humanity that kept me staying in the world of Downton Abbey.  And I only want more.


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