Monday, February 06, 2012

downtown abbey is my superbowl

As a kid born and bred in New Jersey, I'm glad the New Jersey, I mean New York, Giants won the Superbowl yesterday, although like many I only tuned in long enough to see Madonna's half-time show. And what a show it was. I was very pleasantly surprised. I don't think there's been a halftime show that entertaining since Prince was scheduled, and that was quite a while ago — the kid was just a toddler, I think. But once Madonna and the fabulous Cee Lo were done, it was time for me to tune into my own special show ... Downton Abbey.

The incredible Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess Violet Crawley
Although Downton Abbey is in its second season and airing here in the States, it seems like this is the year that everyone really started noticing what fun it is. It's basically a glorified soap opera, but the Brits know how to do soaps right. I first started watching last year because I love Maggie Smith and many of the other actors involved — Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Phyllis Logan. I was too young for Upstairs, Downstairs when it originally aired, and never caught it on rerun or DVD, so I wasn't especially interested in the whole milieu, but I wasn't prepared for how quickly it would pull me in.

The first season started in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and was primarily concerned with the future of the estate. The Earl of Grantham (Bonneville) and his wife (McGovern) have been graced with three daughters — Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) — and the law of inheritance at the time does not allow the estate to pass through the female line. The potential heir to the estate is distant cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). Should eldest daughter Mary marry the "usurper" in order to stay on as Lady of Downton? Would they confound everyone and fall in love? The most touching romance may be the one between housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle). There was scheming, love affairs, and drama galore, with Maggie Smith getting in some fabulous one-liners. The series ended with war being declared and the fate of everyone and the Abbey up in the air.

Mr. Bates and Anna are perfect for one another
The second season, which has been airing on Sunday nights on PBS, picked up the action with Matthew off at the front and Downton Abbey being used as a rehabilitation hospital. The plot has definitely thickened, with a scandal involving Mary from season one still hovering and threatening her future. Mr. Bates's and Anna's romance is still experiencing some roadblocks. The Great War is drawing to a close, but not without major casualties, some very close to home.

Why is Downton Abbey so intriguing? The costumes and period are beautifully done, which is a draw. But most likely it is the way the characters are so well-rounded. As much as Mary and Matthew are the central (doomed) romance, their characters aren't essentially heroic. They make decisions that don't appear to be exactly smart, or at least what the audience thinks would be the right one to make. Mary is frequently horrible to her sister Edith. Matthew can be holier-than thou. They are frustrating and human and extremely likable. The challenges that they have been faced with this season — Matthew coming back injured and possibly crippled, Mary engaged to a horrible, manipulative, and dangerous man (Iain Glen) — just make us like them more.

Will Matthew and Mary ever be on the same page?
There is third season already in the works (thank goodness!), to be set in the 1920s. Shirley MacLaine has already been signed to appear as McGovern's mother. We're just a little more than halfway through the second season, so I don't want to debate where the Roaring '20s will take the inhabitants of Downton, but it is intriguing, as the way of life of such an estate will have started to disappear. I do know that I will be tuning in.
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