Monday, December 5, 2011

Downton Abbey (Season 1)


Plot summaries for series such as this present something of a difficulty.  Because it isn't really about plot at all. Not that there aren't story arcs--there are.  Downton Abbey is subject to an entail, and when the heir presumptive and his son are killed in the sinking of the Titanic, the Crawley family struggles to adjust to the new heir--a distant cousin working as a middle class attorney.  The entail itself and whether it can--or ought to--be broken is the focus of much of the season.  Then, too, the series follows the romantic misadventures of the eldest Crawley daughter, Mary (who was informally engaged to her now-deceased cousin, and thus expected to eventually share in his inheritance of the title and fortune), as she explores her options.  Younger sisters Edith (plain, overlooked, and eventually spiteful) and Sibyl (kind, modern, and supportive of women's rights) also get smaller story lines, but Mary and her marital prospects are the primary focus of the 'upstairs' crowd.

Below stairs, other crises take center stage, most notably the new valet to His Lordship--an old army friend injured in the Boer Wars.  As the household adjusts to his handicap, soulless footman Thomas and his scheming cohort O'Brien, maid to Her Ladyship, seem hell bent on getting rid of the new valet.  Who is, by the way, pretty much awesome.  Or at any rate, Anna, the head housemaid, certainly seems to think so... 

It comes as no surprise that this series was created and penned by Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes.  Although this series is set a few years before Gosford Park, many of the themes are the same, as the aristocracy is on the wane, and the lower classes are poised to forge existences for themselves independent of their employers.  World War I looms in the future, women want the right to vote, and electricity and telephones begin inserting themselves into daily life.

Fellowes has a knack for creating complex and interesting characters, and he disburses virtue and vice both upstairs and downstairs.  There are characters to admire and love (butler Carson, housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, head housemaid Anna, valet Bates, and footman William downstairs; the Earl, his wife, his mother (Maggie Smith at her Maggie Smithiest), and his youngest daughter Sybil upstairs) and characters to hate (most notably footman Thomas and lady's maid O'Brien, but occasionally Lady Mary and Lady Edith).  And even the hateful characters seem to have layers, and can, on occasion, engender sympathy (with the possible exception of Thomas, who seems almost improbably selfish and never gives the slightest hint of any redeeming quality). 

The complexity and effectiveness of these characters is due not just to the writing, but to the acting as well; both are superb, as you might expect. I will admit that things were a little slow for me from time to time.  Gosford Park was ostensibly a murder mystery, and even though the real point of the movie was something completely different, there was always that plotline driving you forward through whatever social issues were being explored.  Here, there is no such plot line.  It is a character drama, and it is about the characters.  Without a clearly defined major story arc, the series seemed to meander and even stagnate a bit.  Still, it righted itself in time, and I will say that the writers did a nice job of creating parallels among the various story lines in the individual episodes. 

All in all, if you like this sort of thing, you'll probably enjoy Downton Abbey.  You just may have to exercise a bit of patience to wade through all the criss-crossing story lines.

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