Downton Abbey | The Clashing of Classes & the Upset of Changing Times

The rather large cast of charactes,, from aristocracy to servants, makes Downton Abbey jolly good fun!

I’m a sucker for theater about the old British aristocracy—the impeccable diction, the arranged marriages, the gaggle of servants, the joys and woes of inheritance. While some dramas provide the meat and potatoes of the entertainment diet, Downton Abbey offers some proud and fluffy dessert.

I love the propriety—the understated manners, the crisp dialect with its ticklish idioms, those snooty titles like Duchess of This and Duke of That, the formal attire suited to each occasion like strolling the garden or tea time. I’m fascinated by the customs, the curtsies, the pecking order, and the social walls separating the classes, all in contrast to the do-it-yourself American culture. And equally front-and-center is the hierarchy of maids and butlers, competing to elevate their own status. From the servants’ quarters to the drawing room, Downton Abbey delivers a wealth of characters, including the scoundrels, the “cheeky,” the timid, and the kind, gentle souls, of which there are plenty.

Julian Fellowes, creator of Gosford Park, wrote this sumptuous series about the blue-blooded Crawley family that begins in 1912. Robert, Earl of Grantham, is the traditional but adored master of Downton Abbey, played by the flawless Hugh Bonneville, whom I would follow anywhere. His ultra-traditional mother Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is superbly flaunted by Dame Maggie Smith, who delivers the series’ richest lines. Robert’s loving wife is the American heiress, Countess Cora, played with nuance by Elizabeth McGovern. The Crawleys’ three bickering daughters are the snobby Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), the progressive Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), and the plain and manipulating Lady Edith (Laura Car­michael). If you’re familiar with the rules of nobility, you know that daughters are decorative but the family heritage can only be carried by sons. And there lies the rub.

In Episode 1, the Crawleys learn that the Titanic has claimed the lives of Lord Grantham’s heir, James Crawley, and his son Patrick, who was Mary’s fiancé. Suddenly the Grantham legacy is in jeopardy, and the Crawleys must find an appropriate male heir within the family. The viable contender is Cousin Matthew (Dan Stevens), who works as a solicitor, which means he’s a lawyer, which means he has a job. This irritates the Crawleys, who spend their days changing their clothes, riding horses, and giving orders to the maid. What unfolds in this exceptional series is 1) the clashing of classes between the charmed life of the Crawleys and their employed cousin, 2) the lives and secrets of the household servants, 3) the modern ideas and changing times that challenge tradition, and 4) all of the unexpected events that occur while the family tries to secure the future of their beloved Downton Abbey. Some viewers complain that this series is unoriginal. If it is, so be it, but I know good entertainment and a sterling cast. I’m marking my calendar for January 8, 2012, when PBS airs season 2.    A