Downton Abbey consists of an upper-class family, their servants and the pre-World War I atmosphere that surrounds them. Julian Fellowes, writer of Gosford Park, a film of which I’m a big fan of with beautiful directing from Robert Altman, is certainly in his wheelhouse both thematically and content-wise, but through the medium of TV he develops these characteristics quite well. Nothing is new or ground-breaking, but the characters and their developing relationships throughout the first seven episodes of the series create something that makes you want to keep coming back for more. We see familiar tropes such as a servant falling in love with a member of the upper-class, an out-of-her-times matriarch type, the audience conduit, the bumbling character, and the connivers. All these familiar character types work due to the dedication of the actors behind the roles, the writing in the maturation of these relationships and how well we know these characters almost immediately after we’re introduced to them. Even in the first episode, especially with a some-what sprawling cast, we are given a good handle on who these characters are, what makes them tick, all the while of course leaving some shading in to do later in regards to backstory and character growth.
This idea works so well within the TV model because it can get really soapy, historical, funny and dramatic all within the same episode, and it all works for the most part. Given that this is a show based off the lives of the rich and their lowly servants who are around them for the majority of the time, gossip is a huge factor. With this major crux of the show we’re able to transition between both sides quite easily and in this world are able to see different points of view which enlighten us on multiple sides of a particular character or action. With a series set right before World War I, in some increasingly glum times, the show can also get fairly comical and slightly silly, highlighted with the random death of a one-off character during a sexual encounter. This is where some of the “soap-opera” elements take place. At the time of the death it is largely played for laughs with the woman (Mary) unable to move him and has to enlist the help of a servant and her mother to carry him back to his room in a slightly slapstick manner. This event, though played for laughs, is actually quite important in the dramatical stakes of the character going forward as Mary is trying to find a suitable husband, and the leaking of this encounter to the press serves to show people questioning her sexual fidelity and “lady-like” demeanor when being presented as a prominent figure going forward for the family. I’m not personally a fan of outright silly or comical things like this (in dramas), but when it’s treated correctly and spirals out of control in a meaningful way, it can be very effective and realistic. Mining the line between comedy and drama is crucially important, so as not to undercut either side, but building off one area and using it to lead in to the other is something the show, and quite frankly the British, accomplish at a far better clip better than most.
If I do have a criticism, it’s that everybody is too damn nice. Coming in to the series I expected the upper-class family to be plain, spoiled assholes towards the servants, but it’s actually quite to the contrary. Robert Crawley, the father/husband and “boss” is extremely nice, forgiving and understanding. He desperately tries to avoid firing people, instead he tries to make things work, like by keeping on his old acquaintance as his servant even though he’s crippled, or by going so far as to send the cook (who’s slowly going blind) for eye surgery. His wife as well is not played as you might expect as the bitchy wife, nope, she’s just as nice to everybody, including the servants. Their daughters are as well, with a couple of them having actual friendships and confidants in the servants. These servants are seen almost like a part of the family, sure they have to do their jobs and serve the family, but they’re treated incredibly well and are not even harshly reprimanded for any mistakes. The servants are just as nice back and don’t outwardly hate the family they serve or even hate their jobs, with many of them seeming quite content. While there are two servants who do stir up some trouble, and try to get people fired while still being outwardly antagonistic, they’re not really that bad as their misdeeds aren’t really on a huge-consequence scale and one of them even starts to feel regret after her actions. I’m not sure what life was like between a family and their servants back in the 1910s, but I’m sure it wasn’t this cordial, so you have to take some of the relationships and formalities with a grain of salt, I’d imagine.
Leading into season two I’d like to see the show expand on or introduce some of these villainous or antagonistic characters who actually create legitimate stakes and decisions for the characters we care about. Having actual consequences would help to not only open up some story lines but strengthen the characters we do like as they more actively have to fend off these problems. Having problems and obstacles is important in pushing both the story and characters forward, as maintaining a constant status quo can cause a show to continue to spin its wheels season after season with little growth. It’s all very fun and enjoyable watching these characters be happy and intermingle across class lines, but there comes a point when you want the levee break and to have our characters faced with some tough decisions, rather than which type of pie they should make for dinner.
As the show heads directly into the start of World War I at the end of the season, I have hopes that the terror and tragedy of the war will be mirrored in the literal Downton Abbey moving forward. Fellowes smartly sets the show in the 1910s, right before World War I, where things were relatively swell, until things slowly started to unravel with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the subsequent power struggles between Serbia, Austria, Russia and Germany. Ones hopes that Fellowes purposely placed this series to remain relatively calm leading up to the war, echoed in the show, all to have everything break open during the war, both on a geo-political scale and within the social politics of Downton Abbey. I’ve heard some rumblings about what season 2 contains, that it gets more silly (Uh, Oh), but I’m intrigued to see where it goes and to at least see if Fellowes indeed has tied this show thematically to the larger world around it, or if I’m just reading to much into it. Either way, season one was some good, soapy, historical and dramatic fun, here’s hoping for some more out of season two, for better or worse.