Yeah you know me!
When your mom’s friends are planning weekend marathon viewings of a show, it’s safe to say its reached the cultural mainstream. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of partaking of Downton Abbey, or if, like my coworker, you think it’s a “chick show,” let me set the record straight: it’s some of the most compelling drama on TV.
For the record, the words “period drama” don’t excite me, so I was initially resistant. But by the end of the third episode, I was hooked. Here’s why:
Nothing forces dramatic economy like a cast of 20+ characters, and the narrative momentum generated by juggling so many stories is spellbinding. But perhaps more impressive is the fact that each character feels believable and dimensional.
It’s also a tour de force in character introduction. The writers seldom need more than two lines of dialogue to establish a character; this specificity is one of the show’s hallmarks.
Watch any episode and its clear where the money’s going: costumes and rental of the Abbey itself. This enforces frugality elsewhere, and without elaborate setpieces, the resulting show feels mostly theatrical. Almost the entirety of the war scenes are shot in the same foxhole.
The happy result is that interpersonal drama is the engine, and there’s no shortage here. Servants Thomas and O’Brien make up a deliciously evil duo, and Aunt Violet steals the show so often I wonder if it shouldn’t be renamed “The Maggie Smith Show.” But smoothed across the volatile conflicts is a crisp layer of British propriety that strikes this American as equal parts bizarre and delightful.
I think a big part of my fascination with the show is the simple fact that this existed – that there was a time when a giant house of people with noble blood were served by a cadre of servants, responsible for cooking their food, doing their hair, and dressing them. Mind-boggling. And the execution makes it immersive – not just costumes and cars but customs and traditions as well.
And is there a greater escapism than eavesdropping on the wealthy and powerful? A strong contender for my favorite part of the show is every scene shot in the luxurious library!
Either way, it’s a worthy way to spend a weekend. And at roughly eight hours per season, one that promises not to consume your entire life.
What do you think? Is Downton a revolutionary drama for the ages or a period costumed snoozefest?