The Masterpiece of Downton Abbey

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January 30, 2015

The television illuminates as the first chords of a violin sound, Isis the dog wags her tail, and my heart beats faster with overwhelming joy. These are the first moments of a Downton Abbey episode.

This British, award-winning masterpiece follows the extravagant lives of Lord Grantham, his wife Cora, and their daughters.  While their rich lifestyle at Downton may seem easy, their upperclass problems show through in the family’s estate affairs, family feuds, and relations with their servants. Aside from the family’s stories, the shows encapsulates the hardworking lives of Downton’s downstairs servants and staff. And more frequently, these two classes’ lives are intertwining more than before, as Downton tries to keep up with the advancing social customs, to which the very traditional butler Mr. Carson says, “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

Costumes from Downton Abbey showcased at Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. The dark blue dress (right) was worn by the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Dame Maggie Smith.
Costumes from Downton Abbey showcased at Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library. The dark blue dress (right) was worn by the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Dame Maggie Smith.

As the current season picks up in 1924, it’s clear that a lot has passed.

World war began and no sooner ended. There was love that united in the snow, and love that died at a bedside. There was devious murder, justified by the commitments to marriage. A heart’s desire was torn away by culinary school, young fantasy was halted for the consequences of skin color, a revolutionary mind was split between upstairs and downstairs, women’s skirts were sewn shorter inch by inch, …and there was only one dead Turk.

If you’re not already a Downton Abbey fanatic, don’t worry, there’s still time. You are four seasons behind, which is only two snow days of watching. But if you’re looking for something live, Season five just began, and if there was ever a season easy enough for new viewers to jump in, this would be it. Season five is full of new beginnings, moving beyond the tragedy of Season three and slow recovery of Season four.

Coat worn by Shirley MacLaine on Downton Abbey.
Coat worn by Shirley MacLaine on Downton Abbey.

This season is the time when even the aristocratic traditions of old English families can not hold up against the now liberal manners and innovation of the 20s. You’ll find in the current season that almost each character is somehow conflicted by this change. The eldest daughter, Lady Mary, is fighting conventional systems as she struggles to settle down with the right man. Lady Edith pushes to continually stay in touch with her younger daughter, whom she gave up after conceiving out of wedlock. Assistant cook Daisy begins to learn mathematics to give herself options for her future, and Thomas the underbutler desperately tries to get rid of his being gay during a time when such identity was ridiculed. Tom Branson, the chauffeur-turned-son-in-law to Lord Grantham, still is undecided about staying at Downton or separating from the family and moving to America.

And there are a dozen more fulfilling, heart-wrenching, and moving stories to follow throughout the show. Yet, among a high school audience, this show picks up few viewers. I don’t know if it’s the big network reality shows that distract, or the educational aspect of PBS that discourages young viewers, but to anyone who has formed preconceived notions about Downton Abbey, I say this:

Costumes from Downton Abbey showcased at Winterthur Museum.
Costumes from Downton Abbey showcased at Winterthur Museum.

Nevermind what you hear about Downton Abbey as an old person’s show or being too confusing. While the show’s demographic is indeed older, its elements are what typically appeal to young people’s television tastes. There’s scandal, love, sex, revenge, fantasy, risk, and wealth, all set in early 20th century England, yet modernized through a brilliantly filmed and scripted show and ensemble cast.

And if you can understand Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, or any other storyline with lots of characters and simultaneous plot lines, you’ll be just fine when you’re enthralled in Downton Abbey.

Besides having a new topic of conversation with your grandmother, you might learn something about early 20th century British aristocracy or the effect of the wireless, the origin of jeweled headbands or the daily upkeep of an estate.

So, if you obsess over or secretly adore British accents, customs, britishisms, or afternoon tea, give Downton a try. If you’ve even once thought, “What would it be like to live in a manor, wear lavish long dresses or tailcoats, or to host and attend beautiful parties?” definitely give Downton a try, and tune into PBS next Sunday night at 9 p.m.

My ultimate hope is that you will not only love Downton Abbey, as we would become two knowledgeable and deeply interesting friends, but that you catch onto the other incredible TV programs on PBS as well. That, however, is another realm entirely.

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