The best way to determine the quality of a show in the PBS “Masterpiece Classics” series is to measure the skirts. If they’re too short, it means we’re in England’s grim midcentury period, and I prefer my classics to be set long before the reign of the current queen. I’m pleased to report that the frocks of Downton Abbey reach all the way to the ground, just as they should. Indeed, all the period costumer’s occult arts are on display: corsetry, millinery, the starching of detachable collars. The show, which was a hit in Britain, is set in the world of immaculately turned-out servants who rise at dawn to light their masters’ fires, iron their newspapers, and prepare their meals, while their own breakfasts are constantly interrupted by summoning bells from upstairs.
In the first episode, the papers bring devastating news—the sinking of the Titanic means that Lord Grantham (a likable Hugh Bonneville) has lost his heir and the spare. What’s worse, one of the men was unofficially engaged to Mary (Michelle Dockery), the eldest of the earl’s three daughters. Since the family estate is entailed and can pass in its entirety only to a male heir, the marriage would’ve solved Mary’s problems. But her prospects went down with the great ship. Unless the entail can be smashed, all the land and property and her American mother’s fortune will be passed to a third cousin once removed, a lawyer from Manchester.
Lord Grantham is a good egg. This is obvious from his very first piece of dialogue, when he evinces sympathy for the less fortunate and displays a sensitivity of feeling that in our own day can only be developed by spending many hours on a yoga mat. As a native Mancunian, I can tell you that it’s his lordship’s pronunciation of Manchester that best establishes him as a decent sort. Never has a TV toff uttered the name of that gritty Northern English city with so little contempt.
The entail is to Downton Abbey what the taxation of trade routes was to The Phantom Menace: a big, mostly boring Maguffin. It’s a source of stress for Lord Grantham, who knows that the only way to save his loved ones from being usurped by a stranger is to undo the legal knot his father so carefully tied. The injustice of the entail also makes temporary allies of his wife, Cora, played with the perfect blend of good-natured patience and resigned disappointment by Elizabeth McGovern, and his mother, the crabby dowager countess—a scene-stealing, sour-faced Maggie Smith, who seems to have prepared for the role by lining her knickers with sandpaper.
Downton Abbey manages to be reassuringly familiar and yet surprisingly fresh. If you’ve seen Gosford Park (which earned Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes an Oscar for best original screenplay), The Remains of the Day, or a single episode of Upstairs, Downstairs—basically, if you know what a butler is—you’ll feel right at home. The stiff upper lips, the stirrup cups, and the weekend house parties are all there, but in the middle of it all, you can see opportunities opening up, and modern Britain beginning to emerge. The servants are still grateful to have avoided the factory or the fields, but they’re entertaining other options. The daughters of the landed gentry are still willing to put themselves on the block of the marriage market, but an adequate income isn’t all they demand of a potential husband (and membership in a good family isn’t enough for their suitors).
Change is coming, but it hasn’t arrived yet, and there’s no rushing history, especially below stairs. Housemaid Gwen (Rose Leslie) has ideas about leaving service, and her slow, nervous exploration of that path suggests she might find a way out. But Thomas (Rob James-Collier), the first footman, is burning with ambition, and nothing good can come of it. * Thomas has his heart set on becoming Lord Grantham’s valet, but the job goes instead to a mysterious stranger, leaving Thomas resentful and scheming.
Ambition, and the disruption it could unleash, is incompatible with happiness in the Downton Abbey universe. Exquisite politeness and proper protocol may seem like stuffy signifiers of the status quo, but they exist to make people feel comfortable. When the new heir, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), is summoned to the estate, he balks at its rules because he doesn’t understand their purpose. He refuses to allow the butler to serve him, believing that fastening his own cufflinks or pouring his own tea is a sign of self-sufficiency. In fact, it is an act of selfishness that makes the butler doubt the worthiness of his profession. Knowing one’s place is like knowing one’s shoe size—life is infinitely more pleasant when you get it right.
Still, transformation makes for fabulous television, and although the changes to the lives of these country folk are gradual, the show itself is zippy, moving from dining room to drawing room to bedroom at a good clip. It will satisfy the commoner in all of us, and for the toffs, Downton Abbey is as bracing as a good day’s hunting.
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Correction, Jan. 10, 2011: This article originally misidentified the actor who plays Thomas as William Mason. (Return to the corrected sentence.)