A funny thing happened last January; a show called Downton Abbey premiered on PBS to a somewhat quiet reception. Then the whispers started. On some of my favorite entertainment websites and blogs, the mentions of the BBC program became steadily more frequent. I quickly noticed that every article or post about this British import was positive. To me, the premise was iffy at best; a drama set in turn of the century England that follows the story of the Lords and Ladies of Downton Abbey and their extensive serving staff in the days after the Titanic tragedy. I could already see myself falling asleep. I was the girl that appreciated good television, but normally watched shows more in the vein of Gossip Girl or Friday Night Lights. Stuffy Brits sitting around a grand dining table with perpetual frowns was not my idea of must watch TV. But, soon enough, the buzz was too overwhelming, and I had to check it out for myself.
Fast forward 90 minutes, and I was hopelessly hooked. My first realization was that this show had superb, and I mean superb acting. The leads (Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham, Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham, Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley, Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, and especially Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess) could quite literally not have been better. Next came the writing. This show was created and written by Julian Fellowes, who has an good pedigree (The Young Victoria, Vanity Fair, The Tourist).
His work on Downton Abbey, however, eclipses everything else. It is nothing short of genius to make a teenage American girl attached to characters with whom, on the surface, she has nothing in common. I say on the surface because as the episodes progressed, I was surprised by how much of myself and my family I saw in these characters. It doesn’t hurt that, like the show, I live in a family with three daughters who are very different from one another. But the way that these characters interact feels incredibly natural in this almost fantasy-like setting. It is also a credit to Fellowes that he is able to ratchet up the drama and tension to excruciatingly high levels while keeping the show grounded in reality.
My favorite aspect of the entire show is the tumultuous relationship between Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley. In order to truly appreciate its brilliance, a bit of backstory is required: Because Lord Grantham had only daughters, a close cousin is in line to inherit the Abbey and all its wealth, the eldest daughter, Lady Mary, is therefore engaged to him. Unfortunately, that cousin dies in the Titanic leaving the family in a state of shock and uncertainty. After a while, the next heir is found, a distant cousin who lives with his mother in relative modesty. Enter Matthew Crawley. Matthew and Mary dislike each other on sight and resent the family’s insistence that they become engaged. Mary especially looks down upon Matthew’s middle class upbringing and Matthew finds Mary an insufferable snob. Well, lets just say those feelings don’t necessarily last, and thus a love story for the ages is born
However, this is just one of many elements to that come together to make this show great. The previously mentioned Dame Maggie Smith is absolute perfection as the family matriarch (her one-liners consistently steal the show). The cast that plays the servants do so with gritty realism, poignancy, and plenty of juicy drama of their own. The cinematography is spectacular, thanks in large part to the very real setting, Highclere Castle and the score is haunting and memorable.
But underneath all of that is what makes Downton Abbey truly addicting and why, in my opinion, it has turned out to be such a big hit in the United States. Simply, it’s a soap opera. Like Dallas and Dynasty before it, Abbey is all about family. We love them, we hate them, we can’t live without them… add British accents? Gold. What I find truly remarkable however, is that Americans are starting to embrace quality television again. This show made national headlines when its second season premier beat the Kardashians in the ratings. This statistic was especially sweet because for about a year I had begged friends and family to start watching the show and there it was, right in front of me, proof that they listened.
I believe the Downton craze will only grow. Just last month, the show won its second Golden Globe for best mini-series and its momentum is growing. More and more of mainstream America are buying into this phenomenon and I hear nothing but good things from everyone who watches it. Downton Abbey has all the ingredients to be around for a long time to come.