‘Downton Abbey,’ you just can’t feel guilty
Yes, it's a soap opera, but the PBS British drama is so well done
January 3, 2013
One wouldn’t normally associate the phrases “guilty pleasure” and “PBS period drama.” The network’s serialized dramas, which are usually British in theme and origin, tend to be based on classic literature or at least deal with high-minded subjects and themes.
That’s the secret of the “Masterpiece Classics” series “Downton Abbey,” the third season of which premieres this Sunday, Jan. 6, at 9 p.m. Chronicling the turbulent lives of a noble family and their servants in the early decades of the 20th century, it provides a convincing — and visually splendid — portrait of British society as it is being forever changed by history, from the sinking of the Titanic to the post-World War I struggle for Irish independence. As with most PBS offerings, we can therefore say to ourselves that the show must be good for us.
But more importantly, “Downton Abbey” lets us wallow in the soapy melodrama that sweeps up a varied assortment of regular characters, all played by actors who disappear into their roles in that egoless British way. Viewers who would never admit to caring whether Chuck and Blair got together on “Gossip Girl” can obsess shamelessly over whether Matthew and Lady Mary will make it to the church on time. The show is a guilt-free guilty pleasure.
As the season begins, it’s 1920, and Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Stevens) are planning their wedding after the touching proposal that ended season 2. The Crawleys are struggling over the question of whether to invite Mary’s sister Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her Irish husband, Tom Branson (Allen Leech), the family’s former chauffeur.
Like the first two seasons, which zipped through seven years, the first five episodes of the new season are jam-packed with soapy action. But to describe the action precisely would set off a domino chain of spoilers, so we’ll try to keep this vague.
As usual, beneath the veneer of historical authenticity, the characters’ lives are implausibly dramatic. Each episode contains plot points that would seem over-the-top if they weren’t presented with such skillful acting and sharp dialogue.
The early episodes address these melodramatic questions, among others: Can love between a commoner and an aristocrat survive? Will he/she leave her/him at the altar? Could that lump be cancerous? What’s in that mysterious letter? Will a character inherit a windfall fortune? And even: Did someone slip him a mickey?
From the first episode, the main question has been whether Robert Crawley, the earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), will be able to keep his ancestral home, Downton Abbey. The issue of succession seemed settled at the end of season 2 when Matthew, the distant cousin who is the heir to the title and thus to the fortune brought to the family by Robert’s American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), proposed marriage to Mary.
Given the political and economic storms that the Crawleys have faced and will face, the question should be not whether the family will lose Downton but when. One of the great surprises of the series is that viewers who were certain that they couldn’t care less about the housing problems of wealthy English toffs found themselves caring so deeply.
The show gives a fair hearing to what was probably the aristocrats’ own justification for their lavish lifestyle: that they were creating employment opportunities. That’s certainly debatable, as is the show’s portrayal of the servants as generally content with the opportunities provided.
In “Downton,” the servants are just as concerned with their own pecking order as the snobs and aristocrats are with theirs. In fact, the character who is the most conservative regarding matters of hierarchy both upstairs and downstairs is the butler, Carson (Jim Carter).
Although some of the plot threads feel like unnecessary deviations — the story of the unjustly imprisoned former valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) springs to mind — viewers will be happy to see their favorite characters again. Even the rather drippy Isobel (Penelope Wilton), Matthew’s mother, is so well written and well played that she’s a welcome presence.
Violet, the dowager countess (Maggie Smith), is still a reliable source of arch observations, delivered with a lifetime of experience, both on the part of the character and of the actress. Fans will smile when the countess pauses and says, “Lie is so unmusical a word.”
But those same fans will be disappointed if they expect fireworks when Violet meets Cora’s wealthy American mother, Martha (Shirley MacLaine), who has come to England for the wedding. MacLaine’s scenes feel more like a celebrity cameo; she’s out of place in a cast that is so invested in their parts that it’s jarring when we see the actors in any other TV show or movie.
“Downton Abbey” is a self-contained world, one to which loyal viewers will be happy to return. New viewers are strongly encouraged to pay a visit.
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