I’ve reviewed British dramas before, notably Life on Mars and Doctor Who, who have always worn their Britishness casually. They’re set in contemporary Britain, but the stories they told could have been set in almost any location. Downton Abbey, however, is a story of a British Earl’s estate and the lives of the people who reside there, both the Earl of Grantham and his family, as well as the dozens of servants who live there as well. This story could not have been told anywhere. This is an intrinsically British tale.
It also was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records in 2011 for being the highest critically acclaimed English-language drama yet. A feat demonstrated by its Metacritic score of 92 out of 100. For those of you who know Metacritic, this is an insanely high number.
And it deserves it.
Much like how Americans obsess over the British princes and princesses much more than the residents of Great Britain do, there is something strangely charming about a story that involves a cabal of butlers and maids in the service to an honorable Lord. And to his great credit, the centerpiece of this story, Lord Crawley the Earl of Grantham, is a very honorable man who stands up for both his family and his servants when he feels they have been besmirched.
I have spoken before about what it is I look for a good drama, and it typically comes back to the same thing: I want to see people striving to be better. Not just better than their normal, but better than their peers. There is nothing greater, in my mind, to see the story of how a character does something so honorable, and moral, and right that it flabbergasts everyone around them. And if that action can inspire others to take up more altruistic aims, then so much the better.
Now, perhaps the characters of Downton Abbey do not reach such lofty heights on a regular basis, but there are plenty of occasions where characters do the right thing when they had no encouragement to do so. And over the course of the two seasons, we see more and more of the cast get onto the bandwagon of becoming better people through the examples of the most honorly among them. Even characters you are trained to expect the worse from early on, eventually evolve over time to become greater people.
So what it is actually about? It’s about the titular Downton Abbey, a house/castle/estate in fictional Downton, owned by the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley. As per succession laws in Britain at the time, the Earl is required to pass his lands onto a male heir when he passes. The issue for Lord Crawley, however, is that he has three daughters, and no sons. So at the start of the film, he intends to pass his title onto his close nephew Peter. Unfortunately, Peter decides to take a trip to New York on the inaugural voyage of a very well regarded ship: Titanic.
Things go as well as you might expect.
Thus, the main plot of the story is set in motion by the arrival of Matthew Crawley, a 2nd cousin once removed to the Earl of Grantham, and one who is not at all used to being a Lord, having being raised in slightly less extravagant environs as a lawyer in London. Of course, there is also the issue about the Earl’s daughters, who will inherit nothing, and their quest to find suitable husbands of wealth of stature that will care for them (as was the norm at the time).
Meanwhile, downstairs, the Abbey’s large staff of servants have stories of their own as they dutifully work (most of them anyway) and try to reconcile the rapidly changing landscape ‘upstairs’ whilst managing their own personal dramas.
It’s all very compelling, on both sides of the line of privilege. There are also many signs – as was happening at the time in Britain – that the division between upstairs and downstairs was starting to blur, and the consequences for those on either side who try to cross the line too early.
There are also many instances of mundane heroism, which I adore to no end. Yes, the Earl was born into privilege, but he intends to act with honor towards anyone regardless of their position. He protects and helps his staff, even when they are trying to find ways of rising themselves up above the line. Meanwhile, his generally charming daughters make his life difficult at every turn because they are at the forefront of a changing tide of woman’s suffrage.
Both currently available seasons of this show are quite good, though the second season is slightly less amazing than the first due to its attempt to cram all of World War I into its storyline with all the expected tragedies that go along with it. I watched the show thanks to Amazon Video On Demand – which is rapidly becoming my go-to store for video purchases – but it’s also available on iTunes. The first season is also on Netflix streaming as well, for those of you invested in that plan.
Downton Abbey is one of those remarkable confluences of writing, filmmaking, acting, and editing where everyone is doing their best at the same time and we receive the joy of getting to watch them do it. I heartedly recommend the show for anyone who enjoys a good character drama and isn’t timid about learning more about British customs in the early 1900’s. It’s funny, intelligent, and appropriately emotional, and I can’t wait to see what it’s third series has in store for us come Fall.