Saturday, January 14, 2012

Downton Abbey - Season 1

Masterpiece Theatre is just lovely.  I wish I watched all of the time.  This review isn’t too timely as the second season of Downton Abbey just started.  I am late to the game and was able to watch season 1 via Netflix…it’s how I watch many serial programs.

Since I don’t pay attention to many things in life, I first learned of Downton Abbey by watching the Emmy’s.  Like many English shows, it has won awards.


Julian Fellowes is the creator and writes many of the episodes.  You may recall he wrote Gosford Park.  Downton Abbey, like Gosford Park, is about an aristocratic home showcasing the owners and the help…the service staff.  While Gosford Park is set in pre-WWII England, Abbey is pre-WW1.  I encourage you to watch both to see how things change….or not.

After watching the first season, I can classify Abbey as an Edwardian soap opera.  Once your peel away the magnificent setting, the accents and the wardrobes, it’s your basic soap.  There’s conflict, romance, secrets and lies.

The premise – an English aristocrat (and Earl, but called Lord) has a wife and three daughters.  Due to English law in the 1900’s, his home and his wife’s fortune should go to his son…of which he doesn’t have.  Instead, the home and fortune go to the closest male heir.  In the first episode, this relative heir dies on the Titanic.  This is bad as this heir is slated to marry the Earl’s oldest daughter.  The drama begins.

The next heir is a relative from Manchester, England.  A barrister.  He is invited to visit/live in Downton by the Earl - the hope is this relative would marry the Earl’s eldest daughter (lady Mary).  The cousin does come down (Manchester is in northern England) and he brings his mother.

As the story is laid out for the viewer, we begin to meet all of the characters, but at the same time, learn how life is lived in the 1900’s with the service staff.  While I never watched, it’s probably like Upstairs/Downstairs.

Like many English-period programs, the acting seems perfect.  The home (which looks like a castle) and the cinematography are just lovely.  Because it’s like a soap, it’s really not intimidating and the stories are not hard to follow.

 While some of the actors may look familiar, there are two most American’s will know.  Cora, the Earl’s American wife, is played by Elizabeth McGovern.  I believe she’s been living in England, so what a great gig.  The other familiar face is Dame Maggie Smith, playing Violet, the mother of the Earl of Grantham. 

Period pieces can be difficult, especially when it comes to exposing a class system.  English people seem to be obsessed with where people fall in place in society.  It’s easy to make the rich look off-putting and heartless.  It’s even easier to make the working class look like victims.  Downton Abbey helps us look into a reality of a time where your place in life was defined by your family and money.  Watching Downton Abbey, rather than portraying everyone “knowing their place” it’s more about “knowing their role.”  Without the levels, higharchy and rank, it all crumbles - metaphor for any powerful entity relying on structure rather than chaos.

There are some “modern” moments in Abbey from word choices to storylines, but these out of place modernisms makes the story even more palatable.

I have the first part of season two waiting on TiVo.  Will watch it tonight – a cold Saturday night in January.  Happy new year.

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