Why "Downton Abbey" Is One of the Best New Shows on TV

The Emmy Award-winning series from 'Gosford Park' creator Julian Fellowes starts back up on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic on Sunday, January 8. In addition to the stellar actors and actresses led by Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern and Dan Stevens, the beautiful, historically accurate costumes, breathtaking scenery, and outstanding necklaces, herewith my top five reasons to watch Season Two, and if you haven’t already, catch up on Season One. (PBS.org has the first three double-length episodes available to watch free online to start off your 'Downton Abbey' splurge as soon as possible.)

1. Maggie Smith

In every richly and beautifully appointed room full of talent that she appears, Maggie Smith as Crawley family matriarch, Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, always shines brightest. And as top notch as the writing is for every character at 'Downton Abbey,' Lady Violet’s lines, especially her dyspeptic one-liners, are, every one of them, a perfect pleasure. My favorites from Season One: upon learning that the swivel chair in which she grudgingly finds herself was designed by Thomas Jefferson, she inquires, “why must every day involve a fight with an American?” And, worth the price of an iTunes season pass alone: when the middle-class cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) refers to the fact that he’ll get to a certain task on the weekend, Lady Violet inquires, in complete seriousness, “What is a weekend?”

2. Jane Heir

Pay attention. In between the scenery, the jewelry, the barbing tongues, and that magnificent Labrador retriever, there’s quite a lot to be learned on British laws on inheritance. Underscore your lessons learned in Jane Austen novels. And though the Countess and Earl of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville) are remarkably benevolent 1 percenters, in addition to the class dynamics that are explored so deftly in the series, there are interesting commentaries on wealth in the stories of the rich who grapple, both with and without grace, with scandals, a monumental succession crisis, and the prospect of losing everything. (But because this is Britain, it’s mostly with grace.) There are a great many more history lessons embedded within the show –in Season One viewers saw new inventions such as electricity and the telephone, the unfolding events of the Titanic, women’s suffrage, and the lead up to World War I.

3. Occupy Abbey

In the final moments of Season One, the Great War has just broken out. As a statuesque Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) weeps upon a hillside (admittedly for reasons having more to do with being thrown over by Cousin Matthew than with the war) she tells the butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) “You know me, I’m never down for long.” As the young Downton men go off to war and Downton Abbey becomes a convalescent home for wounded officers, tune in to see if that statement will ring true in the larger sense. And in times of war, service to the country is where classes collide, or should I say merge. The effect that will have on the Crawleys and the many other residents of Downton will be fascinating to watch.

4. Debate

In addition to the seriousness of war and class division, 'Downton Abbey' provides numerous opportunities for entertaining and escapist, to say nothing of engrossing, debate. Contemplate and discuss at length whether Lady Mary and Cousin Matthew will ever be together again. Ask your colleagues and friends if Cousin Matthew is simply much better off without her, or if this a classic case of “the heart wants what the heart wants” and we should cheer them toward a reconciliation? Will O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) be able to live with herself after the part she played in the tragic events at the end of Season 1? For those who’ve yet to splurge as suggested above, I shan't ruin the suspense with any further details, but will she be forced by her guilt to leave the Abbey or will she remain, in her own spot-on words, “as a cursed princess in a fairy tale?” And Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael)? Will she ever find love? Will we get a cross-class romance between youngest and most politically active sister Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) and the dashing, reading, thinking, idea-generating chauffeur, Branson (Allen Leech)? (My money is on yes.)

5. Be Fair. Forgive.

Downtown Abbey is not just a very pretty face on history or aristocracy fetishism. In a time of inequality and protest, it is a show very much about fairness and forgiveness. There’s a great deal in the story about what constitutes fair play. Bates (Brendan Coyle), the valet who proves one needn’t be George Clooney in order to be a heartthrob, gets a big second chance in life. Housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie) gets a job after being turned down a few times. The show is also nuanced around forgiveness: Lady Cora ultimately forgives Lady Mary; when Lady Sybill is hurt at a rally, she and Lady Mary talk their father out of firing the chauffeur who brought her there unwittingly. And at the same time it’s not a sugarcoated series. Bad acts have real and lasting consequences at Downton Abbey.

The return of Downton Abbey will be celebrated with a live twitter event, # DowntonPBS. Click here for details.


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