Downton Abbey, Reviewed

The second season turns its gaze from class war on a great estate to the actual Great War.

Still from Downton Abbey.
Still from Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey © 2012 WGBH Educational Foundation.

“Who knew it would be so much fun to watch a house full of magnificently dressed aristocrats and their servants living all under one roof?” Here comes Laura Linney—lovely in black lace, a gracious hostess strolling before a backdrop like a crimson curtain—to ask a trick question of viewers like you, this Sunday on PBS.

The heathens among my readership may not recall that, a few years ago, PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre—that cherished staple of upper-middlebrow media diets—split into Masterpiece Contemporary, Masterpiece Mystery!, and Masterpiece Classic. Contemporary, now hosted by David Tennant, ranges across genres in a tumultuous quest for West End class and BAFTA glamour. Mystery!, emceed by Alan Cumming, is where Inspector Morse and Miss Marple cock their eyebrows perspicaciously. Classic, with Linney at the helm and on the prow, is devoted—well, to shows about magnificently dressed aristocrats and their servants.

Some Classic programs are greatish-book adaptations, but Downton Abbey, imported from Britain’s ITV, is original and simply great. As a PBS hit, it rivals 1981’s Brideshead Revisited for cultural impact and may yet outrank as a crossover phenomenon.* Linney’s excitement about this is such that she sighs with bliss and gratitude as she introduces the first episode of its second season.

Linney reminisces with viewers about their first go-round with Downton, ticking through a brief catalog of passion and worries, of fond hopes and rousing hatreds, of roiling scandals and simmering romances. “We were hooked—and then they all went away,” she says. “It’s a great pleasure for me to say that tonight we return at last to that great country house with its hundreds of rooms.” That is a lot of imaginative space to inhabit as we trot up the steps alongside the handsome hunting dog that serves as the show’s mascot.

Part of the appeal of Downton Abbey, like Brideshead before it, lies in its presentation of a grand household as an organism. To be sure, the new series vibrates excitingly on many frequencies, but it specially resonates as a rare hybrid of domestic drama and shelter porn. This genre combines the gratifications of “sheer plutography” (to use a term of Tom Wolfe’s that I’ve elsewhere applied to Brideshead) with the more common pleasures of observing efficient household management. There is action in the setting.

The parlors and pantries are theaters of war, and the show stimulates a kind of class warfare in the viewer’s human heart and reptile brain. In the interactions between the man of the house (Robert Crawley, played right honorably by Hugh Bonneville) and his valet (John Bates, played by Brendan Coyle), we discover a rich and intimate fantasy of power, dependence, and dedication, a business relationship with love in it. In the dining room, the caste system is ordered as precisely as a table setting.

There is very much else going on besides, with heirs and airs and mustard gas. “It’s 1916,” Linney says, to bring us up to date. “The bonds of social class and tradition are exploding in the trenches of World War I. …” Shortly thereafter, Masterpiece abruptly drops us into an actual theater of war, the Battle of the Somme, with an image of writhing fallen soldiers to linger in your head and their atmosphere. One combatant—Matthew Crawley, heir presumptive to cousin Robert’s earldom—is preparing for a furlough. Back home, ladies hopeful of aiding the war effort are learning how to do things previously considered unladylike, like driving cars and boiling water, activities that complicate the business of husband-hunting. The central question of this domestic drama is: What is correct? That’s the issue animating its droll chatter about manners and its swift playlets about morals. With the coming of the war, the question picks up meaning in the Wilfred Owen sense. When is it fitting to die for your country?

The author of Downton Abbey is Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, about a house full of magnificently dressed aristocrats and their servants living all under one roof. The earlier work was playfully tricksy and dense with incident. With its murder-mystery engine, its roving friskiness, and its Hollywood-imposter subplot, Gosford Park plays like Upstairs, Downstairs as adapted by M.C. Escher. Its brilliance feels cold and a touch cynical when compared with Downton Abbey’s warm and generous sprawl.  Appropriate to the pace and the space of series television, it welcomes you into its intrigues at a walking pace. On TV, a great country house must be a home.

*Correction: This piece originally incorrectly referred to Brideshead Revisited as a Masterpiece hit. It was a Great Performances program. (Return.)