Six full seasons of tea, crumpets, and snappy dialogue on the BBC/PBS television phenomenon Downton Abbey came to a close earlier this year. I was a bit late to the party, and I only started watching it this year, but Downton is a very binge-worthy show and its immersive recreations of early 20th century Britain make for some very enjoyable period drama. Downton is the most-watched PBS show ever, with its popularity surpassing even the wildest hopes of their show-runners. Anchored by strong casting, witty writing, and absolutely gorgeous sets and immersive cinematography and costume-design teams, Downton Abbey delivered on its promise of grandeur and fun, stodgy British quips.
I must say, I did not expect to be so taken by Downton Abbey. Despite my love of dialogue and enjoyment of Jane Austen novels, I expected the show to be stiff and unapproachable. I could not have been further from the truth. Though episode summaries would lead audiences to believe that very little happens over the course of these 50+ minute episodes, somehow an hour spent at a garden party and debating local gossip over tea became an engrossing and rewarding experience. The clever dialogue, written by creator Julian Fellowes, and brilliant delivery by the large and broadly talented cast makes this show surprisingly gripping despite a relative dearth of action. Maggie Smith is a scene-stealer, harrumphing and hooting her way into my heart as yet another iconic character.
The setting of Downton Abbey is spatially beautiful and chronologically interesting. Beginning in 1912, the show dealt with numerous significant world events at the beginning of the 20th Century: the Titanic, World War I, the advent of electricity, the popularization of the automobile, and even 1920s Women’s liberation. The breadth of issues covered by the show makes it an earnest attempt to highlight the important cultural changes that occurred in 20th Century British society, often expressing the social and cultural changes as much as the geopolitical ones. The tenuous position of the landholding aristocracy was a focal point of the show, and the emphasis on the servant characters also offered a careful dichotomy between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Though somehow, it felt odd, especially as an American, to become so attached to the British aristocracy. Their plight to hold onto power and position was seen as a tragedy and I felt for them, even as it represents a net gain to middle classes and improved equality throughout the Western World. It is a testament to the strength of the show’s writing that I can find myself rooting against my own self-interest and feeling nostalgic for an antiquated aristocratic society.
Though my endorsement of the show is strong and I recommend it highly, that does not come without caveats. I will avoid major spoilers in discussing my few (though substantive) misgivings throughout Downton Abbey‘s six season run. First, I can think of a handful of times that the show deviated from its strengths of slowly building dramatic tension and went instead for crazy, unpredictable shock value. Some plot decisions were too abrupt and felt as though they created a jarring and undesirable tonal shift in the show. This is most notable in the end of Season 3, whose reveal I can think is nothing more than a desperate grab for ratings to leave a cliffhanger for the subsequent season. Second, there were a couple of plot elements that seemed to never go away (most notably the Bates’ subplot). Those who have already seen the show will likely agree. It can come off as lazy writing to continually revisit the same plot element rather than invent new challenges for the show’s characters. It arrests their development and makes a sub-plot become more of a nagging issue. Finally, I often found Mary’s character difficult to root for. Despite the fact that Downton makes her out to be the show’s primary heroine, her snarky and selfish tendencies did, at times, seem unnecessary and the amount that other characters coddled her could be annoying.
Nevertheless, my few complaints aside, Downton Abbey is just about as captivating a period drama as you will find on television. The almost 60 hours of story fly by surprisingly fast and the clever wits and snappy writing provide a thoughtful and entertaining portrayal of a fascinating time period in British history. Any remaining history buffs, fans of period dramas, or even just well-written dialogue that have somehow yet to watch Downton should clear their schedules and dig in for a wonderful viewing experience. Rating: 8 of 10 (would be a 9 of 10 if not for that Season 3 finale that still has me hurting).