Television Review: Downton Abbey

Now, before I delve into the merits of the very popular television show, Downton Abbey, I think it may help our Dear PrimeRates readers to know the perspective from which I came from before watching even a single episode. To say that I wasn’t immediately warm to the idea of watching Downton Abbey would be a rather large understatement. There is hardly a concept for a show that I could possibly dream up that would hold less interest for me than that of Downton Abbey.

A show set in the early 1900’s centering on the wealthy, English nobility and their hard scrabble servants? Ugh. Double ugh. No way. Really, just no freakin’ way am I going to watch that! Now, I don’t want to give you the idea that I consider myself some sort of “real” man who only watches ESPN and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). But my taste in entertainment definitely lies a lot more toward Martin Scorsese movies, Will Ferrell comedies and the latest Marvel concoction than say, The Black Swan or Les Miserable. But slowly, ever so slowly, the show weaseled its way into my consciousness. The accolades were so great that they even trickled down to my non-People reading, non-E Channel watching world. That combined with my friends singing Downton Abbey’s praises, the usual suspects at first (i.e. women), followed by the not so usual (What?!! — et tu Jimmy?). Then, nestled into my seat with a large popcorn heavily coated with that 10-30W motor oil-looking buttery stuff, enjoying my movie going experience of watching Robert Downey Jr. reprise the role he was born to play, Downton Abbey intruded into my world yet again. Yes, for those of you who did not have the good taste, and dare I say sophistication, to have seen Iron Man 3, a quick glimpse of Downton Abbey is shown in Happy Hogan’s hospital room. And it was even declared (wink, wink — ha, ha) his favorite show.

Now, why am I sharing my decidedly bourgeois tastes in entertainment with our obviously (!) intelligent readership? It’s very simple really. I think there are many people out there with similar preferences in  movies and television shows and may even now, be less than thrilled with the thought of watching even 10 seconds of Downton Abbey. And I am here to tell you that I totally understand. But I am also here to tell you that I was wrong and you too are wrong, as Downton Abbey is just absolutely FANTASTIC!

By now, most of you reading this review have already seen every episode and are eagerly awaiting the 4th season to begin. But as you can tell, the thrust of this review is to try and convince the hold outs that it is absolutely much watch television. So, I won’t be going into the details of every character, and can you believe that ending of season three (c’mon now!–how could they do that?) and how about that Bates, and way to go Anna! Nor will I bore potential viewers with the fact that I am rooting for Lady Edith like crazy or that Carson and Mrs. Hughes are just so great, or rave about Maggie “what’s a weekend” Smith.  And I will refrain from mentioning the Lady Mary and Mathew relationship, or Mrs. Patmore’s awesomeness, or even the evil Thomas. Instead, I am going to go over some of the reasons the show works so well and maybe convince a reader or two about the delights of Downton Abbey.

Expectations can play a large role for audience members, and I am no different. And while my expectations were definitely low, and obviously this show exceeded them, after the first episode or two, they soon elevated to appropriate levels. So, while I think that my dismissal of the show (or at least the concept) made the initial viewing even that more enjoyable, continued viewing hinged on the merits of the program. Nonetheless, my reluctance to watch Downton Abbey may resonate with a few people out there, so let me share with you some of the reasons I am so late to the party.

In a nutshell, I really thought it was going to be slow, boring and geared almost entirely to women. More specifically, and actually only realized in retrospect, I thought the show would include many of the elements that it in fact does not contain. I figured that the wealthy were going to be shown as well-dressed buffoons with mean streaks. In between treating the servants with less compassion than a piece of furniture, they would concern themselves with the latest party and gossip all while clearly demonstrating that they didn’t deserve one penny of their vast fortune. I also had the vague impression that a show like this would portray the servants as the true noblemen (and women), vastly more intelligent and, of course “street smart”. These put upon souls would tug at our heartstrings as they scraped out a living under the cruel eyes of their employers. Now there is some of this, of course, but far less than you would think.  The “masters” of the house are not all wonderful human beings, but they take their role in society seriously. They are all (mostly) quite intelligent and thoughtful, with a clear eye toward keeping up the house and everyone in it — yes including the servants — happy and employed. Well, ok, not the wealthy women, they are most definitely not encouraged to work so much as stay busy–this does begin in 1912 after all. The servants also don’t fit neatly into the boxes you may expect. Some are indeed imbued with “noble” intentions, but some are just rotten.

Another trope that I was dreading was the “liberated” women aspect of many of these types of dramas. And it is done here too. But it is generally shown in the context of the times, rather than reflecting our own current sensibilities. And for the most part, there is restraint when it comes to this aspect of the average woman’s life. However, the topic just seems too irresistible to our modern day writers so the show is not without some groan inducing moments. In one of the weakest plots, one of the “independent” daughters begins falling for the chauffeur. Worse, the chauffeur is a revolutionary, socialist Irishman who would just as soon burn down the house (literally) than work for it. Yeah, sure, those two are going to fall in love in 1915. And Beyonce almost married her exterminator before settling on Jay Z.

Don’t get me wrong, even that plotline is entertaining, but I also came to realize that it was one of the few that seemed aimed directly at the present day audience. That made it less believable for me and was therefore not quite as enamored with that section of the show. But as I say, Downton Abbey mostly sticks with plots and characters that are not what you might expect.

As far as my worry that the show would be slow and boring — wow, was I wrong. This show is as fast paced as possible and you rarely if ever dread that they have veered into a subplot that you might not like. The reason for that is that you really like, or are interested in, almost every single character and there must be about 20 of them. I purposely did not read or watch many reviews before writing this as I didn’t want to see anything that might dampen my enthusiasm. But, immediately after watching the final episode, I did go to YouTube and look at one or two brief reviews and some interviews with the cast. I quickly stopped so that I wouldn’t get swayed one way or the other. But one of the comments in an interview (I don’t remember who) was that Hollywood was taking a keen interest in Downton Abbey for their ability to tell what is clearly not an action packed story in a brisk and entertaining fashion. I completely agree with that sentiment. It’s really just amazing how well the Downton Abbey team does it.

Finally, and maybe most importantly is just the time period and their ability to suck you into that era. There is a popular phrase, used ubiquitously in movie talk lately, of “world building”. It refers to the importance of  building a “reality” inside a movie that the audience finds believable, or at least understandable and acceptable. Most often it is a worry for science fiction or fantasy movies. If the rules and reality of that world do not make sense or are just too silly, then the rest of the movie is most certainly doomed. This is true for any movie of course, but it is especially important in period pieces and fantasy movies. Star Wars is a perfect example of fantastic “world building”. Mad Men is a good example among current TV shows.

And Wow, does Downton Abbey ever deliver on “world building“. The mansion itself is just gorgeous. The interior dinner scenes are so realistic as are the cars and the outfits worn by the various characters. All sorts of small details are revealed to show how a house of such immense size is attended to on a daily basis. The etiquette involved for that time period also unfolds in an interesting fashion. In other words, it really does take you, in a myriad of ways, back 100 years to this house in England.

As you can probably tell, I could go on and on about Downton Abbey. But I will attempt to wrap things up. There is a bonus to coming late to this phenomenon, as I did, in that you can sit down and watch all three seasons. It took me just four days to watch the entire series. As when reading a good book, that included some late nights of just-one-more-episode watching. Even if you can avoid that temptation, I think that you will find yourself going back to the show again and again, until you have just plain run out of episodes to see. I don’t know about Netflix, as I don’t subscribe, but Amazon video has the entire Downton Abbey collection available, and if you are an Amazon Prime member, all 3 seasons are free. Well, free after you pay for a membership, of course. I would assume that some cable systems must have it available on demand as well.

Alright that’s enough. Maybe, I’ll come back to the  Downton Abbey subject for a more in depth, spoiler filled review at some point in the future. For now though, I just wanted to metaphorically shout from the rooftops about this terrific show, as well as implore all of you out there who, like me, didn’t want to give it a shot, to do so immediately. You’ll be glad you did.

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