(If you haven’t seen Downton yet , be warned that this post contains spoilers and you are better off not reading it .)
I have just finished watching the last episode of Downton Abbey ( Season 3) and it reconfirmed why I like British TV period dramas so much . And to think that I was late discovering it …
I don’t usually watch PBS and was unaware of Downton Abbey when it first burst on the scene .However, I had heard from friends how great it was and , when the first season of the show became available on Netflix streaming , I eagerly latched on to it . After the first series , I was hooked and had to wait an interminable length of time before season 2 became available on Hulu . We ( my wife , daughter and I ) watched both seasons together over the course of three days and now they are hooked too.My wife and I were able to watch Season 3 as it was being aired on PBS . (We’ve taped it and will watch it again when my daughter visits in summer ;she doesn’t have access to it in Japan).
What a revelation Downton Abbey has been ! Previously , I’d enjoyed other period dramas such as The Duchess of Duke Street , Cranford , Lark Rise to Candleford , Mansfield Park , Persuasion , Sense and Sensibility and others but Downton Abbey is , far and away , the most enjoyable . It has all the usual Masterpiece Theater hallmarks : great character development , wonderful production values that transport viewers to another time , another place , the lovingly photographed British countryside and a leisurely exposition that nevertheless grips one’s interest. The only other British show that I’ve enjoyed as much is Foyle’s War , a masterpiece in its own right . Downton has one advantage over some of these other shows that I’ve mentioned ; since it is not based on a book , viewers do not know what is going to happen as the series unfolds . The plotlines are unknown and in fact are still being developed from season to season . Julian Fellowes has done a masterful job with the concept and the script.
The scene that begins each episode is so wonderful that I never tire of watching it . A man and his dog are walking towards Downton Abbey . The scene is shot from the back close to the ground , and we get a view of the dog’s white rump and tail swinging from side to side . Somehow , it symbolizes for me life as it must have been for landed British gentry a century ago : privileged , contented , leisurely , settled.
As I’ve said before , what sets British productions apart from the usual fare on American TV is the nuanced treatment of even the minor characters . This is especially true of Downton Abbey. While most of the characters are likeable ,very few of them are perfect . They each have their weaknesses , their foibles . For instance , Lord Grantham , so admirable otherwise , reveals his class consciousness when he taps a high society doctor to attend to Sybil rather than continue with the perfectly capable physician who has always served them . He also proves to be pig-headed in the manner in which he runs the estate and resists Mathew Crawley’s attempts to modernize . Yet , at heart , he is a thoroughly decent well-meaning sort .
Similarly, the ” bad ” characters have their redeeming qualities . I didn’t think that O’Brien and Thomas ( Barrow) had any redeeming qualities but they do ; even they do. And good or bad , the characters are not static ; they change in a most convincing way with the experiences they go through.
I really , really liked the character of Matthew Crawley , played so convincingly by Dan Stevens . Stevens is a devastatingly handsome man and his Matthew Crawley is well-nigh perfect : decent , decisive , principled and with a good head on his shoulders. It is a pity that he will not be returning next year to continue in this role ; his three-year contract is up and one cannot blame him for wanting to capitalize on his opportunities . He’s already starring in a Broadway show and has other roles waiting for him . The producers of Downton Abbey will have a difficult time replacing his character.
No matter how good something is , there are always those sourpusses who will try to find something to criticize . Some ,for instance ,bellyache that Downton Abbey is no more than a soap opera. Others grouse that it is not realistic , and that Tom Branson , the erstwhile chauffeur , would never be accepted by the family as Sybil’s husband . That could very well be true but you know what ? I couldn’t care less. If I wanted absolute conformity to the truth , I’d watch a documentary. Verisimilitude is good enough for me and whether Downton is a soap opera or not , I like it .
All long running shows at some point begin to lose steam , begin to appear stale . Downton Abbey , I feel , has still some way to go before that happens . Its quality so far has been astonishingly, uniformly , good and I think that will continue for at least another season or two before the inevitable slide begins . I look forward to the next season which, alas, is many months away . In the meantime, I have not one but two books about Downton Abbey that I ‘ve got from the library and they will have to serve as a substitute .