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"Downton Abbey" Returning to PBS: Five Reasons to Watch These Stoic Brits

By Sarah Carlson | Lists | November 21, 2011 |

By Sarah Carlson | Lists | November 21, 2011 |

PBS announced last week it will begin airing the second season of ITC’s “Downton Abbey” on Jan. 8 as part of its Masterpiece Classic. It already aired in the United Kingdom this fall and, I’ll admit, I cheated and watched it online. For the patient among you, the wait is worth it.

Season One aired in the U.S. last winter and nabbed four Emmys in the various miniseries categories, even though it isn’t a miniseries. It is delightful drama, a glimpse into the lives of those who inhabit the fictional Downton Abbey, the Yorkshire country house of Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and their three daughters — Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) and Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown-Findlay). It’s also a crash-course in English social hierarchy, complete with woes about estates, entails and heirs. There’s a touch of “Upstairs Downstairs” to the series, but set in the late Edwardian era, “Downton Abbey” offers a look at the aristocracy and the changing social dynamics of the early 20th century. It’s period, and proper, but not stuffy.

Season One is available to Watch Instantly on Netflix, and PBS will reair it Dec. 18, 25 and Jan. 1. Here are five reasons you should catch up with “Downton Abbey” in time for Season Two:

The romance: No British period drama is complete without romances, and “Downton Abbey” has scores. More often than not, the love stories are painful affairs — so, so many longing looks — whether they are among the aristocrats, the servants or a mingling of the two. One of the most surprising catches is Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens, pictured), a distant cousin to the Earl who becomes heir to the estate. A solicitor with an upper-middle class upbringing, Matthew begins as a bumbling intrusion into everyone’s life but slowly grows on the family. Especially Lady Mary.

The stoicism: Speaking of Mary (pictured), she has tortured looks down to a science. When she’s not cold and calculating, she’s trying to put up a solid front to hide her conflicting feelings. And isn’t that the British way? From the top of the social ladder to the bottom, each Downton dweller knows how to present a brave face when adversity comes calling. Honor and duty aren’t simply platitudes for most of them, although some of the servants are sneakier than others. The way of life is presented so genuinely by creator Julian Fellowes, viewers can’t help but be charmed as well as moved. His treatment is respectful, not romanticized. Set during World War I, Season Two certainly ups the drama by showing how no estate, much less family, went unscathed during the period. Everyone has to sacrifice, but everyone soldiers on.

The classes: The household staff of Downton Abbey is just as fascinating as the noble residents, and “Downtown” works by weaving the two worlds together to show how each side relies on the other. While Lord Grantham and his family certainly believe in social stations, they are kind toward the service staff, sometimes even going out of their way to help them out. But the classes can clash, especially as society and politics change. As the years pass, the aristocrats see their way of life, if not entirely threatened, at least questioned, even among their own.


The costumes: “Downtown Abbey” is period fashion porn. The attention to detail is stunning, and with the first two seasons set in years 1914 to 1919, the costumes help tell the story of the changing times. The gowns began to be a bit shorter and a bit looser, and with the upcoming Season Three (to debut next fall in the U.K.) to be set in the 1920s, we can expect even more radical change.

Dame Maggie Smith: As the Dowager Countess, Lord Grantham’s mother, Smith does her best to steal every scene with a wisecrack here and an eye-roll there. (She won an Emmy for Season One.) The Countess is old-fashioned, to be sure, but she’s realistic. You can rely on her to provide quips at the dinner table and to meddle in people’s affairs. And she’s fabulous.

So is “Downtown Abbey.”

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh corgi.