Downton Abbey was an award-winning historical drama TV series that enjoyed a six-season 52-episode run from 2010 to 2015. The series revolved around a fictional English aristocratic family, the Crawleys and their servants, who reside and work at the titular location. Contains spoilers!
The series is set during a pivotal time in history in the early 20th century – from 1912 to 1925 – as tumultuous events like the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic bring about seismic changes to the social fabric of the day.
The ensemble cast can be divided between the two echelons of English classes at Downtown Abbey viz. the Crawley family (‘upstairs’) and the servants (‘downstairs’).
The Earl of Grantham Robert (Hugh Bonneville) is the Crawley patriarch. Robert is married to Cora Levinson (Elizabeth McGovern), an American heiress and together, the couple have three daughters Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). The extended family includes Robert’s mother, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and his sister Rosamund (Samantha Bond).
Downstairs, the servants are led by the butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). The various staff include footmen, cooks and maids. The interaction amongst family and servants, the impact of outside events and the responses of the characters essentially drive the story forward.
The Crawleys are portrayed sympathetically and this allows the viewers to be invested in their fates. The family is seen to be fiercely loyal to their servants and to the village under their charge, even as for most of the time, they maintain the class divide. While this may seem unrealistic for the time period, it does make for sentimental engagement.
Considering the sheer number of characters, it is no surprise that character development is superficial at best. Most of the characters are two-dimensional without much of an arc but the dramatic plot twists and turns do not give the viewer too much time to dwell.
Now, this is probably the main problem I have with Downton Abbey. The storyline stretches incredulity at times for the sake of maintaining dramatic tension. Yes, of course, the plot needs to to put the characters under pressure for audience engagement but at time it gets ridiculous.
The best example is seen with the Bates (viz. Mr. Bates, the Earl’s valet and his eventual wife, Anna, a lady’s maid). In season 2, Mr. Bates is arrested and convicted for the murder of his wife Vera, for which he is ultimately exonerated. Then in season 5, Anna is arrested for the murder of Mr Green, a visiting valet who had raped her! Of course, Anna is also proven innocent in the end. Plainly ridiculous!
Again, the idea is to increase the level of hardship placed on the characters. Thus, death and misfortune haunt the Crawleys on such a regular basis that one would think that someone had put a curse on them!
Sure, I appreciate that Downton Abbey is basically a period soap opera but surely taking liberties with the suspension of disbelief can be risky! Thus, maximum enjoyment can be taken from the series, if one switches off one’s logic centres for a bit and simply revel in the sentimentality! Especially by the end of the series, where there are happy endings all around, a sharp contrast to how the story usually turned out in previous seasons.
Thematically, Downton Abbey constantly hits the viewer between the eyes regarding the changes in the social fabric of the time. Especially, in terms of the impact of the WWI in moderating attitudes towards women’s rights, the aristocracy and the general levelling up of the common people.
The series does that all effectively as communicated in the characters of Lady Mary – who takes on the role of the head of the estate – and Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur who becomes part of the family via the tragic Sybil.
These themes are also explored through the betterment of the footman Moseley and cook assistant Daisy though education. By the end of the series, the writers have utilised the story events to bring upon the necessary attitude adjustments to give the viewer the desired result.
Uniformly, it must be said that the acting performances were top notch. The lead actors performed their tasks admirably within the context of the period and characterisations.
Particular mention must be made of Maggie Smith’s Countess Dowager who is blessed with the most memorable zingers. Her dry delivery of these sharp remarks is often the highlight of her appearances in an episode.
If you are a fan of British period drama, then Downton Abbey can be potently addictive. Especially if you are able to accept the soap operatic elements at face value and are able to engage with the characters, then these six seasons will whiz by! Now for the movie!
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