There is literally nothing I love more than to watch actors in full period regalia amidst the greenest, lushest English countryside, arguing about entailment and alliances and status. Literally nothing. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not. Which is why I love Masterpiece on PBS. When it comes to a good period piece, Masterpiece always has me covered, and the newest installment, Downton Abbey, is no disappointment. The country scenes are so green and the characters so British it’s almost painful. Masterpiece, which airs on Sunday nights, has already run three of the four episodes, but if you’ve missed them they are available online.
Downton is Abbey is written by Julian Fellows of Gosford Park fame. Coincidentally, the show is more or less similar to the movie in television format (without the super hunky Clive Owen), but never fear, it’s just as good if not better than the movie. We begin in 1912 with the very recent news of the sinking of the Titanic. The Crawley Family seems to have the same problems an inordinate number of families had at the time: Too many girls, not enough heirs. Since the heir to the estate was on the Titanic and pronounced dead, the family is in an uproar about who will inherit. There is an immediate dichotomy between old and new generations. On one side, the family is prepared to allow the estate to go to a perfect stranger as good, obedient English families are supposed to do. On the other, the family is prepared to bring in the lawyers and fight it out in court.
At the turn of the century, English values are about to hit a growth spurt in a very painful way. First, there will be WWI which will literally turn the social system upside down. Then there will be women’s liberation and (gasp) jazz and all the other social advancements of the 20th century. The interesting thing about the show is the ambivalence of the older characters to the extinction of their way of life. For example, when the matriarch of the family, the amazing Dame Maggie Smith, is presented with the modern working man, she wonders, baffled, “what is a weekend?” I had to stop and think about that. How could a person not possibly know what a weekend is? How far removed from the working class do you have to be to have a completely different conceptualization of time? It was funny, but also startling.
Unfortunately for the family, the new heir is a very scandalous third cousin. He is quite inappropriately a working man, a lawyer, and he is brought out to the estate to be taught some manners. He refuses to use the servants, he does not hunt, and he will not take part in the running of the estate. He personifies the change in English lifestyle, the out with the old and in with the new. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also super handsome.
However, the Crawley Family isn’t quite finished yet, and their adherence to the old system is no more evident than in the servants. The show is a upstairs/downstairs format with a plot line in the main family and another in the family of servants and valets who keep their lives running. I don’t know much about servants and their employers in the early 1900s, but one of the things I love about the show is that not only are the staff a motley family in themselves, they also embrace the Crawleys as their family. They are confidants and support and friends, and the line between master and servant is blurred and faded, though really bad behavior will get them put in their place.
The thread of modernity also runs through the kitchens and servants living quarters, with one maid looking for work as a typist. With administrative work, a new breed of woman will be born: One who does not clean and cook and serve, but who is instead a mistress of her own career. When the butler finds the girl’s typewriter, its presence is sinister and frightening and the family (servants and Crawleys alike) cannot even begin to fathom why a girl would want to leave her position as a housemaid for the modern world.
Thus far romance in the series has been minimal. The family is struggling to find a husband for the eldest daughter to save them from the predicament of the scandalous heir. Unfortunately, the eldest daughter, while incredibly beautiful, is a total pain in the arse and about as emotionally mature as a 6th grader. We’ll have to see how the storyline progresses with her suitors. There are two other sisters who are better candidates for romance; they not only posses more likable personalities, but are more sympathetic overall. As with all good British period pieces, there is no shortage of male eye candy. They walk about in their riding boots and tuxedos, looking both beautiful and masculine. Every new man is more handsome than the last. I obviously live in the wrong time period.
Downton Abbey will be filming a second season spring of this year. Because it is a British program, it will probably be a while before it hits the states, but I’m already salivating for it. There is just one episode left and, if you haven’t watched this incredible show, I hope you’ll watch it online or in re-broadcasts.