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Downton Abbey

creator Julian Fellowes

It was long overdue for Gosford Park screenwriter Julian Fellowes to be given the tools to a castle of his own. His place is Downton Abbey in 1912, where he reimagines the world of Jane Austen a century later as a far more realistic and wonderful place than those who wrote during the time of its existence could possibly understand.

The result is the complicated partitions of Downton Abbey, an hour-long serial that has more characters than any show ever done in prime time. Even a decade ago it would have taken an act of God to bring the soapy pleasures to our TV screens. Happily, the series that just completed its first season on England's ITV is already out on DVD, and plans are in the works for it to eventually come to NBC as a miniseries. (You can also download the second episode here.)

Much as Avatar ruined the budding romance between James Cameron and Sigourney Weaver, so too did the actual sinking of the Titanic shake things up at this ancient estate. Gifted with three lovely daughters, Robert Crawley (the magnetic Hugh Bonneville) sees the first two male heirs of his family perish in that maudlin disaster, and his distant relation, civil lawyer Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), becomes the inheritor of a massive fortune he never asked for.

John CrawleyThis lighthearted premise has adorned novels since Ms. Austen was in diapers, but the way it plays out is unlike any in British fiction. The real source of Downton's immense wealth is the Earl's monied American wife Cora (Elisabeth McGovern). Since the purpose of the Earl's marriage in the first place was to solidify the financial standing of the estate, it's now subject to English laws, which means that the Earl's first born daughter Mary (the weird-looking Michelle Crockery in star-making role) is shit out of luck when it comes to her future now that her fiance is holding hands with Kate Winslet in the deep.

Matthew and Mary CrawleyWhen we read novels that take place at the end of the English empire, we feel an affection for the customs of the period. The servants of Downton by and large don't share this optimistic view of the cosmos. The inclusion of the trials of the servant class was what make Gosford Park one of Robert Altman's most touching and vital films, and there are really no better protagonists than maidservants, butlers, and footmen.

As in Downton Abbey's literary opposite numbers, the real protagonist of the show is a heroine — Mary's maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). Most of the experienced servants are given perilously complex portraits, and Anna is no different. Her love story with the estate's new arrival, former soldier turned manservant John Bates (Brendan Coyle) constitutes a breakthrough performance for both of them, and with record audiences, the show has already been renewed for a second eight episode season.

The show's second offering deals with how uncomfortable the country solicitor who will inherit Downton feels upon the ubiquitous presence of his manservant. Matthew Crawley is a spirited capitalist, and surely the idea of having a servant of one's own should feel strange to most of us. Downton Abbey's servants learn of this truth and others as they intuit the unfolding of events far better than their masters. But there Fellowes does an exciting dance, where he proves that the idea of the wise yet lowly individual's sagacity is purely an illusion of the masters themselves.

Mistakes were made. Downtown Abbey looks back at this period with something like the careful ministrations of Trey Parker's Captain Hindsight.

How silly the death of one duke and his wife seems a hundred years or so later, where we can see it for what it wasn't rather than what it was! Something the European Union took from us is the ability to imagine these places making war on another again, as if it were the first time we had observed it from across the Atlantic.

The show's first season ends with the onslaught of the War to End All Wars, the most significant event in history about which most Americans know almost nothing about. Men in the movies are always returning from war, so it is somewhat exciting and macabre to see a young man, in this case the wonderfully manipulative homosexual footman, go to one.

Americans dispense with their history when it is irrevelant to the present; the men and women of England have an empire to look back on and sigh appreciatively. What if we were watching the fall of the primacy of our civilization, dressed up in colorful attire and made fragnant by the mere passage of time? It is impossible for an American to truly understand these attitudes, because when she walks into a church she can be sure it is no more than four hundred or so years old.

Mary's aunt, called the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is played by the very familiar Maggie Smith. When she learns that her niece has been divested of the Downton fortune, she quickly springs into action to wed Mary to the new heir. Unlike the girl's overbearing Earl of a father, the Dowager Countess accomplishes her aims indirectly, and even while painting her as something of an antagonist to Matthew Crawley's equally headstrong mother, the show can't resist pointing out that she is the one in control. It is a mastery of the disappearing world.

Comparisons to Mad Men are inevitable and complimentary; but Julian Fellowes is no Matthew Weiner. (Almost everything has to be compared to Don Draper, or else how would we know what it is?) The 61-year old screenwriter penned romance novels in the 1970s under female pen names, and he desperately wants us to love the men and women in this milieu. In fact, the show is so redemptive that when one of the characters fails us, we might make excuses for them as we would with our own child.

In a way, of course, that is what is comforting about classics like Emma and Pride and Prejudice besides the gainful employment they offer to Colin Firth. The love affair between classically acted and styled hopefuls cannot really compare to a truer love between an audience and its wayward heroine, who is stranded on a dangerous road, lacking the proper footing for her horse. To talk your way out of such challenges represents the exact reason young people get in them in the first place.

To us, Downton Abbey is an even more foreign conglomeration than for the country that originated it. The dialogue is the best on television; the garish sets are unlike anything done outside of pay cable. In their arms we are transported: the dancing, the hunting, the endless meals might as well be taking place in sub-Saharan Africa, or on the moon. Here is a place where no secret remains for long, where we can go and escape into a life more sheltered than our own.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. She last wrote in these pages about the show Skins. She tumbls here.

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Reader Comments (1)

OMG THANKS, would never have come across this show much less dropped everything to watch it w/ out you. Just finished Episode 2 and LUUUURVE it.

didn't read your "Skins" piece, but have an overwhelmingly profound hate for that show

November 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBP

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