Downton Abbey — a soap opera for the intellectual crowd

Have you watched Downton Abbey yet?  Or perhaps a better question is, have you even heard of Downton Abbey?  I’ve been aware of it for a couple of years, because I read Britain’s Daily Mail.  The show has been a monster hit there and, during the season, the Daily Mail has a steady stream of articles about the plots and the actors. I only started watching it recently, though, when it crossed my husband’s radar.  I didn’t have any reason to ignore it before; I’m just not a TV person.

The easiest way to describe the show is to say that it’s a 21st version of Upstairs Downstairs insofar as the plot tracks the lives of an Earl’s family and his staff, all of whom live in a magnificent English country house.  The first season, which is available on streaming video and disc, begins in 1912 and works its way up to WWI.  The second season, which is currently showing on Masterpiece Theater, picks up with the war and clearly intends to take us into the post war years.

The series is absolutely gorgeous.  I’m madly in love with every single “upstairs” costume the women have worn, silly hats included.  Highclere Castle serves as the set, and it really takes your breath away every time you see an exterior shot or an interior “upstairs” room.  Typically for a high-end British production, the acting is superb.  Every character seems is a fully realized person.

Putting all that aside, though, fundamentally the show is a soap opera for the elite crowd.  There’s illicit sex, homosexuality, cross-class romances, heroism, death, brutal sibling rivalry, class warfare, etc.  About halfway through the first season, I became exhausted with the dragging soap opera feel of it.  Take away the historical story line, the lovely clothes, and the Castle, and it could be All My Children.

There is really only one thing that distinguishes the show from any other soap, and that thing is a whopper:  Maggie Smith.  Smith plays the family matriarch, and she is so magnificent in the role, I think that when she wraps up her career it will be considered her finest moment.  The following clip shows Smith in action.  She is at her best when she is sparring with the heir’s mother (the Earl had no sons, so the heir comes from a middle class line), a kind woman whose slightly over-officious work ethic deeply offends Smith’s character.

I’m not suggesting that you rush out to watch Downton Abbey, but I do think you might enjoy it if you get the chance.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Old Buckeye

    I’m not much of a TV watcher either, Book, but two people have recently recommended this show to me. Now here you are with a good review of it. I will definitely at least check it out! Thanks for the synopsis.

  • Bookworm

    Old Buckeye:  I hope you enjoy its virtues and don’t mind its faults.

  • Mike Devx

    England’s answer to Dr. House.

  • Michael Adams

    No, Mike, House is our answer to Holmes, Sherlock Holmes. Except, Holmes had bad science and good characters, and House is the opposite.

    • Bookworm

      I don’t know much about House. My daughter got hooked on it during her hospital stay (streaming video on the iPhone), but I’ve never seen it. Can Mike or Michael explain?

  • Mike Devx

    I loved the first few seasons of House.  I haven’t watched much since then.

    The show structure itself is standard: A team of medical doctors highly skilled in diagnostics confront a very difficult case and solve it.

    House is the brilliant leader of the team.  The others are new doctors, possibly interns, in training.  House is misanthropic, with his signature being highly caustic comments.  He can’t abide any form of human stupidity.  He’s an iconoclast.  Humor abounds.  The humorous, often highly competitive and combative interactions between House and the head administrator, a woman named Cutty (I think), were highlights.

    I thought, in the hands of its brilliant writers, and with House portrayed by the brilliant actor Hugh Laurie, the show avoided the meanness, banality, and stupidity so common to shows based on acerbic characters.  It was great, great fun for me.

    There was a particularly good story cycle in which Sela Ward played House’s ex-wife for about nine episodes.  The arc involved the problems her current husband was having, but the focus was on why their marriage failed, and the costs of House’s personaility to his life.  Some of the best TV I’ve ever seen.