Downton Abbey, Season 1 (2010)
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Of late, ITV has been kicking its costume dramas up a notch. Now partnered with Masterpiece Theatre, their seven part miniseries Downton Abbey brings us an array of interesting characters set against the stiff upper crust Edwardian era.
The Titanic has sunk – and it sends repercussions throughout English society. There is a rush and bustle about the great old house of Downton Abbey as servants and the Crawley family alike wonder aloud, “Was anyone we know on board?” All too soon the news comes that indeed there was – a cousin who was set to inherit the estate on the death of the Earl, Robert (Hugh Bonneville). No one knows quite what to make of it, or how to deal with it, but his mother the Duchess (Maggie Smith) believes he should disengage his wife’s considerable fortune from the estate and leave it to his daughters, particularly his eldest, Mary (Michelle Dockery). Robert’s wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is of a similar mind and strikes up an uneasy alliance with her mother in law in an attempt to make it transpire. Meanwhile, Mary places her hope for future prospects in the hands of a charming duke, who seems to have come to visit with an intention of proposing… but has other matters on his mind.
Coinciding with the disastrous newspaper headlines is the arrival of Bates (Brendan Coyle), the earl’s new valet. His appearance sends the rest of the “downstairs” staff into disarray, since he is older and more incapacitated than they expected, having suffered injuries in the war. His presence in the house causes resentment particularly in young Thomas (Rob James-Collier), who had hoped to obtain the position and now seeks a reason to have him thrown out of it. Between his complaints and the objections of other narrow-minded members of staff who suspect he is in fact a “spy” for the upstairs master of the manor, the butler Carson (Jim Carter) seeks to have him removed, little knowing the full effect. Meanwhile, Mary has been encouraged to entertain the attentions of her cousin, Matthew (Dan Stevens). Her younger sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) grows tired of being unimportant and makes an advantageous bid for marriage to an older man, and Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) shows her feminist leanings.
Julian Fellows won an Oscar for his brilliant feature film Gosford Park, in which a large scale cast played out an Edwardian murder mystery set amidst the politics and social struggles of the upstairs and downstairs caste system. This series is no different, granting us glimpses into the lives of both the aristocracy and the servants, although perhaps the most winning personality here is Bates. One cannot help identifying and empathizing with him but over the course of the first season, all of the characters grow in our estimation and interest. Some are more winning than others and most of us wanted to see Thomas get is comeuppance long before the end, but it is quite an accomplishment on a massive scale. And that may be the biggest problem with it -- there is so much going on, so many little stories, that resolution comes to several of them only to unlock more mysteries. Fortunately, there is a second season and potentially a third in commission, but if you are looking for any absolutes in the final episode you will be disappointed, since many of the major plots are left undecided.
The cast is particularly terrific and surprisingly, everyone is allowed to shine in the different vignettes that make up their lives -- from the cook who is having trouble with her eyesight to the footman who rather fancies the silly girl who works in the kitchens, to the antics and turmoil of the Crawley family. Many of the characters are quite human in their flaws -- Bates can be maddening with his secrets and Mary and Edith's mean-spirited rivalry over suitors turns particularly vicious, but in a way their flaws make them endearing. The greatest quality this series has is that we grow to know these characters as human beings and our first impressions are often wrong. Mary undergoes quite a transformation and so does her grandmother; at first we see her as nothing more than an arrogant aristocrat, but she shows surprising kindness later on. There are also a dozen little romances transpiring that hold much promise for the future, as well as occasional patches of comic relief. Indeed, the biggest torment for viewers may be waiting another year to see what happens next.
Our Rating: 3 out of 5
A same-sex kiss, references to a homosexual love affair (Pilot); a woman is seduced by a man (we see them kissing in her room, then the threat it poses to her reputation).
Mild abuses of deity and a few profanities.
Two men engage in a fist fight; a woman is hurt in a riot. Putrid liquid is drained from a man's chest during an operation. We see a bloody, mangled leg.