This Sunday night, the third season of Downton Abbey will begin airing in the United States on PBS. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard mention of the show as Downton fever has taken over the United States. People – myself included – can’t seem to get enough of this British import. But just as many people are puzzled as to what Downton Abbey is about and whether they would like it. That’s where I come in.
On the surface, Downton Abbey looks like it could be a stuffy period British drama. The events of the first season take place in the immediate aftermath of the sinking of the Titanic and subsequent seasons stretch in the 1920s.The focuses on the lives of the Crawley family – The Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), their three daughters and his mother The Dowager Countess (the always incredible Maggie Smith) – and the various servants that take care of the needs of the family and that make sure that large estate of Downton Abbey runs efficiently. The show focuses equally on the people of privilege upstairs as well as the servants downstairs and how the two groups interact with one another.
But look a little deeper and Downton Abbey is really a soap opera that is masquerading as a period drama. It may be more restrained and classier than your normal soap opera, but it is a soap opera nonetheless. Because for a grand country estate in Yorkshire, there is an awful lot of drama happening. The first few seasons have had death, cover-ups, blackmail, murder, star-crossed lovers, ruin, war and all sorts of breaches of decorum and etiquette. Downton Abbey is a lot of things, but boring is not one of them.
While there are an abundance of soapy serials available for consumption, I think that Downton Abbey has struck a nerve because of the execution and the universally strong acting. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a sucker for most things British, and I think that all of the drama unfolding against a reserved and regimented class system only makes it all more fascinating. I am particularly fascinated by the relationship that the staff have to the Crawley family – though the family is their employer and their job is to see to their whims and sense of decorum, many of them have a deep affection for the family and see them as more as their bosses. It isn’t completely one-sided – the Crowley family feels responsible for their employees and their happiness and has a real bond with a number of them, though perhaps not as deep as the staff has for them. It’s an interesting dynamic to see played out, especially against the constraints of high society.
The downstairs stories tends to be a little more exciting than the upstairs; the kitchen and servant’s quarters are regular hotbeds for Machiavellian intrigue. These jobs and their ability to move up the ladder of service are all that a lot of these people have – very few are married or have family – so their stakes seem just a little higher and they are always trying to figure out how to get ahead, even if it means sabotaging their coworkers. Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) are always stirring up trouble. There is also greater turnover amongst the servants so there are new dynamics on a regular basis as people join and leave the staff. Every new arrival is a threat to their position and often, the affection of the person that they are interested in. Because the servants generally only interact with each other and live on the property, their dating pool is primarily limited to the people they work with. Carson the butler (Jim Carter) tries to maintain the order; more than any of the other servants, he is a slave to proper behavior and established codes of conduct.
This is not meant to indicate that the folks upstairs are boring; how can they be when you have Maggie Smith dropping some one-liners and throwing shade? The Crawley family has their own problems. Without a male heir in the immediate family, rules of inheritance mean that they could lose their home when Lord Grantham passes away. As it is, their fortune is propped up by Cora’s money. Their only hope is in the strategic marrying of their three daughters – the cold Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), the sad and ignored middle daughter, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), and the vivacious youngest daughter, Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Mary and Edith cannot stand one another, often behaving cruelly, and Sybil is a sweet free spirit who is most open to the changes in society that occurring and that threaten their way of life. The arrival of a distant family member and apparent heir apparent Matthew (Dan Stevens) and his opinionated mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) throws all their lives into a tizzy.
Through the magic of the internet and knowing the right people, I’ve already seen the upcoming third season on Downton Abbey, which just wrapped up in the UK with a Christmas special. While some fans were concerned after some of the more soapy directions that the show took in the second season, I can report that the third season is more of a return to form, though it doesn’t quite reach the level of perfection that was season one. The stories are still somewhat soapy, but do not stretch the levels of plausibility like some of the stories from the previous season. Early episodes of the third season find Maggie Smith and guest star Shirley MacLaine sharing screen time, which is always a very good thing. Though MacLaine’s character is not drawn as well as it should be – she is basically a walking personification of the differences between Americans and British at this time – her delivery and general awesomeness elevate the words as written. There are plenty of changes in the Crawley family, yet things still seem familiar; Edith continues to be the Jan Brady of the sisters and Mary is still selfish. The third season spends more time outside of the confines of Downton Abbey as we see the continuation of the murder story line from last year. I personally thought that too much time was devoted to this plot; it felt too removed from the actions going on at the house. Thomas and O’Brien are still as scheming as ever, though season three finds them at each other’s throats rather than plotting in tandem. The biggest character of the season, however, is change; while there have been plenty of stories over the past few seasons that have illustrated that the times, they are a’changing, the third season confronts this more head on. The social mores of the times are evolving and blurring, which in a lot of ways are a threat to the way of life at Downton Abbey. Grand estates are becoming a thing of the past and what is considered acceptable behavior is being challenged. This is a source of concern not only for the Crowley family, but for the people that serve them; what will their place be in a new world order?
Some other quick thoughts:
- There are some major plot twists in season three, which of course I will not divulge. But be forewarned – if you want avoid all spoilers, do not Google Downton Abbey season three or one of the biggest shockers will be revealed.
- It’s Downton Abbey, not Downtown Abbey. Easy mistake to make.
- Lady Sybil is back, y’all! She was not in a number of episodes in the second season, but I was glad to see my favorite Crowley sister re-appear.
- The Christmas Special doesn’t have much to actually do with Christmas, but it does find the Crowley family off in Scotland.
- There will indeed be a fourth season of Downton Abbey. Hooray!
- I know this is all pretend, but it legitimately freaks me out to see any of the actors on this show out of character and costume. I like to think they really are stuck in the early part of the Twentieth Century. So imagine how much my mind was blown to see several cast members on The Colbert Report, doing a mashup of Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad that Colbert created called Breaking Abbey.
If you haven’t been watching Downton Abbey, there is still plenty of time for you to catch up. Thanks to the abbreviated British TV model, there are only 7-8 episodes a season plus two Christmas specials (only one of which has aired). So it is not as daunting a task as catching up with two seasons of an American program. If you are like me, once you start watching, you’ll be unable to stop; I blew through the third season in two nights and was sad when it was over. Downton Abbey only appears to be proper; there is plenty of excitement to go along with all the tea.
Season three of Downton Abbey debuts as part of Masterpiece Classic on Sunday January 6th. Check your local listings for time.