Downton Abbey debuts tonight as part of PBS' Masterpiece series. In most markets, it will air at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific or 8 p.m. Central/Mountain, but you should check local listings.
In the brisk opening sequence of Downton Abbey, a telegraph comes in over the wires. It's a few minutes after dawn on the morning of April 15, 1912, and the Titanic has just sunk in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Among the ship's doomed passengers are James and Patrick Crawley, the two male heirs to a sprawling estate in Yorkshire, England. Their horrific deaths will have seismic ramifications for the staff and family of Downton Abbey, but the telegraph operator decides not to rush the message to the survivors. “None of them will be up for hours anyway, what difference will it make?” she says scornfully. When the telegram eventually does arrive at Downton Abbey, the family is still cozily nestled in their ornate beds. But the house is already buzzing with activity, as a small army of footmen, maids, and cooks scurry about, polishing the silver and ironing the newspapers, as they do on any other day. All the while, the grim telegram sits on a silver tray, waiting to be opened. For a show which begins with such a well-worn event (inevitably, one character reacts to the news with, “But I thought the Titanic was unsinkable!”), Downton Abbey, debuting tonight on PBS, turns out to be an unexpected delight.
Sir Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is the patriarch of Downton Abbey, married to Cora, an American heiress whose vast fortune has kept the estate afloat for years. Initially a marriage of convenience, the union between Cora and Robert has long since developed into a happy and loving one and has produced three grown daughters. According to the peculiar English inheritance laws of the time, Downton Abbey can only be entailed to a male. So when Robert's cousin, James, and his son, Patrick, die in the disaster, the future of Downton Abbey is instantly thrown into disarray: Who will inherit the estate, and what is to become of the Crawley girls? For the family (and the servants whose livelihood depends on the maintenance of the estate), there's little time to grieve, only to scheme. As Cora puts it, “This is worse than a shame, it's a complication.”
And so it is. In the first episode of the series, Sir Robert tracks down his next closest male heir, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) a third cousin who, it turns out, is a middle-class lawyer living in Manchester (gasp!). Due to a number of legal vagaries, Cora's money is entailed to Matthew along with the physical estate. Concerned about her daughters' futures, Cora teams up with Sir Robert's Mother, the Dowager Countess Violet, played by Maggie Smith with the usual sublime acerbity, in order to fight the entail. Curiously, it's Sir Robert who is reluctant to put up a legal battle, much to the chagrin of his eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery). Mary, who was informally engaged to Patrick before his death, now faces an uncertain future. While her family pushes for a “tidy” marriage to the unencumbered Matthew, Mary instead chews through a string of potential suitors in spectacularly disastrous fashion, fueling the resentment of her dour younger sister, Edith (Laura Carmichael).
While the drama unfolds upstairs, there's a great deal of turmoil brewing downstairs, too. A new valet, Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), arrives the same morning as the news of the Titanic's sinking. Bates, who served in the Army with Sir Robert, is hobbled by an old war wound and resented by the other servants, especially by Thomas (Rob James-Collier), a conniving footman who had been angling for the valet job, and his main ally, the thoroughly nasty Miss O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), who is Cora's lady's maid.
If this plot sounds familiar, it should. Creator and executive producer Julian Fellowes liberally borrows tropes from British literature and pop culture. Of course, the squabbling sisters, the two-faced suitors, and the irony-soaked dialogue are instantly reminiscent of Jane Austen. But Downton Abbey owes just as much to televised precursors like Upstairs Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited, and even the fantastically entertaining 2002 reality show, Manor House (which ought to be required viewing for all Anglophiles). Dishy and thoroughly engrossing, Downton Abbey is a return to the upstairs-downstairs universe of the English country estate for Fellowes, who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Gosford Park. This might be seen as Fellowes' playing in too-familiar territory, but let's face it: Sometimes being a great entertainer means knowing one's own limits. Fellowes's most notable gifts as a writer, his considerable wit, his affinity for the elegance and artfulness lost in our crass modern era, and his knack for creating unpredictable but emotionally rich characters, are on full display in Downton Abbey.
Still, there is more than enough to like about Downton Abbey, even for those who are congenitally averse to period fare. While Austen might be accused of a certain provincialism, Fellowes is anything but a country mouse. He's particularly interested in England's changing role in the world at the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, one might look at Sir Robert's financial dependence on Lady Cora as an allegory about American ascendancy in the 19th century. Their marriage, borne of convenience, developing into affection, is not unlike the “special relationship” between their respective countries. Fellowes is also willing to “tart up” a familiar tale of the “marriage market” with some decidedly 21st century narrative turns. At the risk of divulging too much, he's under no illusion that premarital relations or homosexuality were unheard of before 1960. It's little wonder that the six-hour series, peppered with double entendres like “one swallow doesn't make a summer,” was a sensation when it aired last year in the U.K. (a second season is scheduled to go into production this spring). For the most part, Fellowes' risqué approach pays off, yet there are moments when Downton Abbey, intentionally or not, verges on the farcical. In particular, the second episode of the series borrows at least as much from Weekend At Bernie's as Brideshead Revisited. Yet these tonal breaches are what gives the series its vitality, what makes it the playful, irresistible melodrama it is, rather than the stuffy or rote history lesson it might have otherwise been.
As the dynamic opening sequence suggests, Downton Abbey also emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between the estate's rigidly defined social spheres, reminding us that what are supposed to be separate and distinct worlds (upstairs versus downstairs) are in fact porous and inextricable. At Downton Abbey, servants are more than just silent spectators privy to the Crawleys's familial drama; they are supporting players, who, if they play their cards right, can exact considerable influence on the estate. Knowledge is the most valuable currency at Downton Abbey, and gossip its leading trade. In a wonderfully ironic twist, Daisy (Sophie McShera), a young scullery maid, a servant so lowly she's rarely allowed upstairs during daylight hours, happens upon an explosive and potentially destructive secret while making her early-morning rounds. Likewise, the scheming Thomas leaks information about the family's delicate legal situation to one of Mary's potential suitors.
Downton Abbey's soapier elements are also kept in check by a superb cast. Not surprisingly, Smith gets to deliver most of the show's best lines (“I have plenty of friends I don't like,” is one of her more delicious zingers), but the rest of the cast more than holds its own with the formidable dame. As Mr. Bates, Coyle is quietly dignified and able to elicit sympathy with the slightest nod of the head; as the butler, Mr. Carson, Jim Carter is both lovable and obsequious at the same time. But perhaps the real standout is Dockery, who makes us sympathize with the haughty and self-destructive Mary almost against our will.
In tune with the current taste for shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, where historical and cultural change play a crucial role in personal drama, Downton Abbey takes place in an era of sweeping change: the twilight of the Edwardian era, and the years leading up to World War I. In the U.S. version, Laura Linney introduces each episode with a brief meditation on the social context. Youngest daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) is a budding feminist who attends political rallies with her socialist chauffeur and shocks her family by wearing custom-made harem pants to dinner. At polar opposite ends of the social spectrum, Violet and Daisy both fear the “vapors” given off by electricity, and when a newly installed telephone rings for the first time, the servants complain that it sounds “like the cry of a banshee.” Likewise, the audience is meant to chuckle knowingly when Sir Robert responds in horror at the discovery that presumptive heir Matthew will keep his job as a lawyer. “A job?” he asks. Like the sexist zingers that pop up on Mad Men, these self-congratulatory lines are here for our benefit, watching as we do from a more egalitarian time. Or so we like to think.
Still, Downton Abbey is not exactly an indictment of upper class entitlement or Edwardian mores: If anything, it might criticized for being somewhat nostalgic about the era it depicts. Sir Robert and Lady Cora are kind and reasonable masters who are generous to a fault with their servants, reluctant to fire anyone, even in cases of theft and blatant insubordination; they simply couldn't bear it, you see? The series also gives far too much credence to Sir Robert's motives in not fighting for Mary's inheritance. He explains to his daughter that he is not the owner of Downton Abbey but merely its custodian, honor-bound to preserving the physical estate and its staff, even if it means impoverishing his daughter or forcing her into a marriage of convenience in order to do so. In one scene Sir Robert, sensing Matthew's ambivalence about inheriting Downton, waxes lyrically about the honor of being in charge of the estate. “You see a million bricks that may crumble, a thousand gutters and pipes that may block and leak, stone that will crack in the frost; I see my life's work.” Fellowes, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, is extraordinarily sympathetic to Sir Robert and to the burden of being a landed-but-broke aristocrat. Certainly, the last thing the world needs is another villainous aristocrat, yet there is something faintly irksome and paternalistic about Sir Robert's attitude. One can't help but side with Mary when she complains to her father, “The only one who never sticks up for me in all of this is you.”
But never mind all that: To critique Downton Abbey for its less-than-progressive politics would be to spoil the considerable fun.