I have to say I loved Downton Abbey, and thought it was one of the better programmes airing this year along with Luther, Sherlock and the stunning Channel 4 drama Mo. Downton Abbey was beautifully produced, well cast and interesting, when it was first advertised it looked as though ITV had a hit and from the first episode I think Downton Abbey lived up to that expectation.
I for one loved how elegant Downton Abbey was. The photography was beautiful and skillful, while the scenery was breathtaking and the costumes were exquisite. The scoring was also very good, often very hypnotic and beautiful. The direction was controlled, the episodes were well paced and for me the characters were believable my favourites being Violet and Robert.
The writing in general was another strength. It was witty in a subtle way, is often funny and could be heart warming and poignant too, the best coming from Violet and Mrs Hughes I felt. The only bit of dialogue that rang false, and this is such a minor criticism, is Robert's "Downton is my third parent and my fourth child" which came across as somewhat cheesy. And the stories were well written and as believable as the characters, not to mention pretty original.
And of course the acting was excellent. Maggie Smith was perfect as Violet. She plays this sort of character well, and she had such good timing and dialogue. Plus I love her in costume. Hugh Bonneville was dashing, and I cannot get over how beautiful Michelle Dockery was here. Jessica Brown-Findlay was also fine as another of my favourite characters Lady Sybil, and Phyllis Logan was always good value though I would love to see more of her if and when the series returns.
In conclusion, Downton Abbey was a wonderful series thanks to the great cast and production values especially and I cannot wait to see more. 10/10 Bethany Cox
I was hooked after the first five minutes and come heaven, hell or high water, I was going to see Downton Abbey twice, the second time to pick up the points which I knew would be too fast, and possibly convoluted, to follow the first time round. I have watched Masterpiece since the inaugural with Alistair Cooke, and I can't remember anything as engaging and entertaining as this. As a cousin of an English family with deep affection for the monarchy and respect for the aristocracy, my perspective is an odd mix of Democratic ideals, old-time Republican values and curiosity about and appreciation of the social structure which prevailed so long in England. Downton Abbey appears to present a very balanced depiction of the social, political, economic and historical forces which drove the lives and fortunes of the classes and produced strange and almost incomprehensible behavior to comply with an unwritten, all-pervasive code. I am completely fascinated by the events and reactions and what would appear to be almost puppet-like behavior on occasion. I pray for a sequel.
I'll agree that the British know how to do period drama better than anyone (certainly better than us Americans) and this is no exception. You'll be captivated immediately and hours will go by before you realize you've spent an entire afternoon in front of your television set. The relationships built between all characters of this show are what tie it up in a nice, fluffy (although not always pretty) bow. Brilliantly written and set in lush, vibrant surroundings with detailed costuming, this drama series should set the bar for others. No busy dialog or wasted scenes, just good, solid craftsmanship in every episode of this poignant family story. You'll do well to invest in seasons 1 and 2. Looking forward to the arrival of season 3!
I remember the '70s and another Series which was cut more or less in the same parameters as this one, and that was "Usptairs, Downstairs".
This too was a masterpiece of a social study, of the times at the turn between the 19th and early 20th Century.
The only difference was that it was set in a City based household, while "Downton Abbey" is set in the very elegant English countryside.
Both series display the best of British Theatre and Cinema, in terms of production teams, actors, technicians and general staff.
It is absolutely to be considered high quality movie-making, even though meant for the home screen.
Everyone, but everyone, in this series, knows his business and does portray his own character with honesty and truth.
There is no dull moment, due to a skillful editing of scenes that are almost put together like in an elegant dance sequence.
It is a very intelligent show that explores every facet of Society as it was structured (so far, in season 1 and 2), before, during and right after World War I, and as people behaved and felt back on the Homefront, being so detached, yet totally involved with the destinies of those men sent abroad to fight.
It is no melodrama in the classic sense of the word. It is an honest depiction of what people "downstairs and upstairs" went through during those years. The conventions, the rigid rules, the traditions, all changing just in a ten year period and being uprooted and twisted by the new winds of war.
There is something for everybody here. You want a thrilling story? Check! You've got it. You want love and romance? Check! You've got it. You want a social drama? Check! You've got it. You want a war drama? Check! You've got it too.
It's a very human story of all characters on board of this static ship that is "Downton Abbey". As firm as the Rock of Gibraltar one might say. And yet, not so static after all... Lots is happening here, and this, day by day.
Just think of the nightmare to have a sudden dinner invitation. The kitchen is in uproar, serving hands are missing, the masters are nervous, and everything seems to be doomed from the beginning, but then, somehow, everything comes together beautifully, like by magic... Magic? Let's say blood and a lot of sweat...
I started this saying that it was addictive, and indeed it is. AFter an episode is over you immediately want to jump back in and watch the next to see how it goes on.
I only have Seasons 1 and 2 on DVD and I am already asking for the 3rd Season to appear, just to know what happens next.
DOWNTON ABBEY is the kind of "Masterpiece Theatre" material that the British do with such finesse that one can only sit back and marvel at the sets, costumes, music, and above all, the performances that are all on an extraordinarily high level.
The moment the first series ended, I wanted to see more--so no doubt I'll be ordering my copy of Season 2. Central among the gifted performers are Maggie Smith (as the Dowager Countess Violet), Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham, and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, his American wife. But all of the lesser roles are played to perfection with special mention for Brendan Coyle as John Bates, Joanne Froggatt as Ana, Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael.
Complicit in schemes involving wicked behavior are two of the downstairs help played brilliantly by Siobhan Finneran and Rob-James Collier as Thomas, both of whom cast a shadow over the household.
The plot has dialog that is always witty and good for a quick chuckle or a gasp of disapproval and the character motivations are all played out in a convincing manner true to each person involved.
Very compelling to view the fluid story unfold with its many sub-plots and shadings of the class warfare that existed in the U.K. then and now.
Absolutely one of the most rewarding and richly satisfying shows from Great Britain that have come along in recent years. The color photography amid location settings create the proper atmosphere for the entire story which takes place just before WWI among a wealthy titled household undergoing some major changes inside the castle walls.
For me at least Downton Abbey was elegant, controlled and subtly witty. The scenery, of course, is very good. (anyone interested can find short interviews with actor Hugh Bonneville and writer Julian Fellowes via youtube and be infected with their enthusiasm as well as getting an explanation, if you need one, of the setting) The house is suitably dramatic and the fabrics, the costumes, the camera shots of ringing bells and curious meal courses in the form of fences of asparagus, the morning light, or lit windows across the lawn, and the smooth work of all the actors make it something to watch and be both interested and relaxed. There is just enough drama and just enough calm, nothing seems overdone, and (after two episodes) the characters, as it switches between moments of their various days, are none of them an unwelcome change from the view of the last. It is a costume drama but 1912 after all was just as real as 2010 and it is, quite separate from costumes, about people, several different people, house workers and owners, their motives, their histories, pain, relationships, scheming allegiances, awkwardness or ease, old ways and the coming of those things we now call modern electric lights, the middle class Enjoyable so far. However, if you find these things dull, if you need constant shocks, use the word inoffensive as an insult or dislike all period dramas, scenery or rich people stay away. It's not hard to do.
Julian Fellowes' intelligent (and sophisticated) take on pre-World War I society of aristocrats and worker-bees is smart-writing on the changes we will see over the next 25 years, encompassing two major wars and a great depression. The writing and the casting make this many steps above "soap opera" as the themes of social mobility and aristocratic incompetence are sharply etched.
All of it pleased me, from the smallest character to the dozen or so leads, lead off by the always-brilliant Maggie Smith. This is to be enjoyed for both its eye-candy (Downton Abbey) and its themes of rich- and-poor dilemmas. Gorgeously shot with accurate art-direction. Wonderful all the way around.
Having had my fill of 'detective/mystery/thrillers', I have longed for a 'proper drama'. Here we have a wonderful piece, drawing comparisons with such milestones as 'Upstairs, Downstairs', 'The Onedin Line' and the BBC's 1990's production of 'Pride & Prejudice'. An excellent cast, marvellous sets, costumes, writing and storyline make this a truly marvellous (and rare) television event.
Yes we know the history, yes we've seen a lot of it before and yes we know the 2nd series (and I sincerely hope there is one) will focus on the First World War but that, in part, is what makes it all the more exciting. The threat of the war looms like a menacing shadow, you just know it's there but fear for and sympathise with the characters, wondering how their safe, secure and seemingly everlasting world will cope with the coming onslaught.
All the actors are excellent but special mention must be made of Maggie Smith who is gifted some marvellous lines, delivered as ever, with perfect timing and characterisation.
Downton Abbey is something to look forward to every week and savour as a brilliant piece of television.
This is beautifully filmed, with authenticity and societal values inherent in both script and acting. The story weaves in and out of two layers of society -- the masters and the servants -- giving us glimpses into the power struggles occurring on each level, and the colourful characters who inhabit both. I particularly enjoy seeing the large-scale production involved in taking care of a household of this magnitude, and the care taken with all the details. Given today's rapid pace, it's almost peaceful to watch this deliberately slowed pace, and to get a genuine sense of what it was like to be an estate-owner in this period. Housemaids who gossip, independent young men who don't appreciate the butler's code of honour, catty women and genteel sophisticates all combine to make this a very enjoyable romp among the rich of yesteryear!
"At the risk of sounding sentimental, I believe the monarchy stands for a fairness that we like to think represents us. I hope 'Downton Abbey' has a similar decency about it." - Julian Fellowes
"Downton Abbey's" written by Julian Fellowes, a Tory peer, Baron, monarchist and husband-to-royalty, so right away you know it has a clear agenda. Restorative nostalgia to the max, and released to coincide with a fresh round of British austerity measures, the television series sees a family of early 20th century aristocrats living in a palatial estate and tended to by a sprightly band of servants. Sounds interesting?
Forget Renoir's "The Rules of the Game", Altman's "Gosford Park", and the past 500 years of human history and social theory. No. In "Downton Abbey", the class system exists for the benefits of those at the bottom, and proves as bothersome to those unfortunate few at the top as it does those lower down the social hierarchy.
Fellowes serves up the platonic ideal of an English aristocrat. Good, selfless and caring, our Lords and Ladys bend over backwards to serve their servants, graciously offering them jobs, assistance, compassion, awards and so forth. They are benign despots, all-powerful, their authority final, but more sage and caring than any elected politician could ever be. The rich, in other words, are socially responsible father figures. They are invested in their households, in their communities, and provide a far reaching social benefit; without the rich to mercifully protect them, the poor would be forced out into the cold to fend for themselves. Indeed, Fellowes frequently has his rich folk sacrifice their bodies, their status and their wealth for the servant class (joining war efforts, taking on limping servants etc). The message - rife with false binaries - isn't only that servants should be content with their roles, but that one, regardless of class, cannot and should not avoid servitude. Even the rich are servants to their fellowman.
Significantly, the series' villains are all either homosexuals, socialists or members of the servant class. In the second series, villains become figures of new wealth; modern capitalists who don't respect the supposedly loving, symbiotic relationships of late aristocracy. As the series focuses on an individual household rather than systems, the nobility and selflessness of Fellowes' aristocrats justify the system in which they spin. It's a very classically conservative notion of history (in actuality, servants couldn't look at, let alone speak to their masters), a proudly hierarchical world in which all social conflicts and tensions are resolved without any restructuring of class relations. Stratification is posited as being natural, optimal and only the deviant or repellent are incapable of adapting or finding accommodation within it. No talk, of course, of where our Earls and Lords acquired their wealth, land enclosures, the lives of the impoverished outside the mansions or how the system's social relations hinge on an in-build bondage ingrained within "economics" (ie money) itself. Elsewhere the series brings up occasional Big Issues (war, feminism, Ireland etc), but only to engage in the smug, back-patting afforded by hindsight. This is a benign, liberal aristocracy, for an age of "caring" capitalists.
All "Abbey's" arguments in favour for the class system were once put forth by George Fitzhugh, an American social theorist who published racial and slavery based sociological theories in the antebellum era. Fitzhugh essentially argued that Negro slaves needed "strong white daddies to look after them". That slavery "protects the Negro", "ensured that blacks would be economically secure and morally civilised" and that the evils of modern capitalism, which was gradually replacing slavery, would expose poor blacks to persecution and suffering. The new rich, Fitzhugh argued, were promoting a form of competition which would harm blacks. Afterall, the slave belongs to its owner, and owners take care of their capital, take care of what they own, provide them with food and shelter, unlike those pesky capitalists who merely rent labour. Fitzhugh even went so far as to defend slavery because "capitalists are anti Negro racists, whilst slavery is not racist".
Fellowes is doing the same. Or rather, the arguments are always the same, no matter the social reconfiguration taking place. Hence, slavery is good because slave owners take care of their slaves, aristocracy is good because the aristocracy takes care of their servants, and capitalism is good because employees take care of their labourers. What each argument does, regardless of historical time period, is posit the lower classes as dependent on power without questioning how and why this power is structured, created and propagated in the first place.
In the early 1980s, Immanuel Wallerstein, a renowned social scientist, outlined 12 characteristics which he believed were "unique" to modern world systems. His aim was to show that modern capitalism, in the affluent 80s, was a kind of "step up" from both the aristocracy of "Downton's" era and the feudalism of the distant past. By 1989, though, Wallerstein had completely reversed his position. All the presumably unique characteristics of the "modern world system" were also true of the medieval and ancient world systems. He could find no substantial distinctions that would satisfy his categorisations. The point isn't only that there were no clean transition from feudalism to aristocracy to capitalism as such, but that power proves capable of propagating itself.
But why would a series which glorifies the class system, posits class hierarchies as inherently benevolent and idealises master/servant bonds, be suddenly so very popular? Why would a series about inherited privilege, ineluctable servitude, be popular in an era of Occupy, Austerity, Bank Bailouts and massive corporate tax dodging? Perhaps because "Downton" presents a Utopian version of the past for the purposes of painting, and thereby bolstering, a contemporary system capable of weathering any upheaval or shock. Or perhaps it's simply a severe form of Stockholm Syndrome.
4/10 - See "Remains of the Day", "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Never Let Me Go". Worth no viewings.
"Downton Abbey" has many qualities, which have already been highlighted: splendid period reconstitution, mix of historical events and individual stories, consistent central plot with ramifications, multiple character focus, witty dialogues, excellent acting, etc.
This review (based on Season 1) analyses just one of them: how aristocrats and servants evolve in two parallel worlds that do not connect, yet present troubling similarities.
The series manages to show two physically close environments as if they were on different planets. This underlines the disparities between social milieus in early 20th century Britain.
Servants frequently go from the basement to the ground floor, however we never see them arriving there or leaving. This disconnection is first spatial: they sometimes start climbing the stairs, yet the camera never follows thoroughly (there are travelling shots following characters, but they always happen on the same storey). It is also temporal: we suddenly see servants on the ground floor without a link to previous action in the basement. Granted, there is a technical reason for that: all action on the ground floor and above was shot on site (Highclere Castle, UK), while action in the basement was shot in Ealing studios, since the castle's basement was not suited for period settings. Nonetheless, it would have been easy to film the servants going up the stairs in the studio and then edit their arrival on the ground floor (or conversely), which the series never does.
Likewise, we see servants in above floors (aristocrats' bedrooms and servants quarters), yet never witness them arriving there. We do see them in the side staircase, but never going from there to the different levels: it is as if these stairs were separate quarters disconnected from the rest of the castle. Stairs could represent the possible link between servants and aristocrats (below versus above), but are denied their symbolic connection since they seem to lead nowhere. Here the reason cannot be technical as for the above topic, since the stairs are effectively located in the castle.
Lighting on the ground floor and the aristocrats' bedrooms is generally bright, while in the basement and the servants' quarters it is always dim. Naturally, this can be explained by the windows sizes, however the contrast is pushed to the extreme: on cloudy days, the aristocrats' levels could be grim which rarely happens, while on sunny days the servants' levels could be bright which never occurs. Moreover, in the aristocrats' levels, colours are generally warm (yellow, red, white), while in the servants' levels they are usually cold (grey, brown, blue).
Camera movements in the aristocrats' levels are fluid, poised, lengthy, while in the servants' levels they are brisker, faster, shorter. In the basement, the camera is frequently hand-held, highlighting the intensity of the work performed. Also, there sometimes is a character or an object in the foreground while action occurs in the background: we seem to bump into elements. The use of long lenses (foreground is blurred, background is sharp) increases this sensation of confinement. By contrast, in the aristocrats' levels, image is generally sharp.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
Despite the symbolic gap between them, aristocrats and servants sometimes experience similar events. The message seems to be: regardless of social differences, we are all humans, with joys, grieves, qualities, flaws and secrets. Here are just a few examples (I will refer to characters either by their first or last name, depending on what is most common in the series).
Servants are all decent, with two notable exceptions, who are real "villains": O'Brien and Thomas. Aristocrats are all decent, with two notable exceptions, who are real b**ches: Edith and Mary (although Mary reveals herself as more complex towards the end of Season 1).
Servants cannot marry because of their function: Mrs Hughes turns down her lover; Carson is a long-time bachelor; the love between Anna and Bates remains chaste. The Crawley daughters cannot marry: Mary turns down pretenders including Matthew, who then turns her down; Edith is turned down by Anthony Strallon; Sybil is still young.
William loves Daisy, who loves Thomas who prefers men. Edith loves Matthew, who loves Mary who does not love anybody. Both settings progressively evolve, however they occupy most of Season 1.
Bates has a complex and shameful past: war, alcohol, thievery, jail. Mary has sexual relations before marriage, which was scandalous at the time, especially for an aristocrat; and it provoked the death of her lover Kemal Pamuk. All these terrible secrets will progressively be revealed.
Various lesser intrigues between the aristocrats are echoed with the servants, and conversely. For instance: Thomas sends a letter to compromise Bates; Edith sends a letter to compromise her sister Mary. Gossip is widespread between the two milieus and within each.
On both above topics, "The Rules of the Game" (Renoir, 1939) greatly influenced the series as well as "Gosford Park" (Altman, 2001), written by Julian Fellowes himself. Yet "Downton Abbey" manages to create a specific atmosphere, distinct from these two movies.
If I had to rate Season 1 compared to a cinema feature, I would probably give it 7/10: despite all its qualities, it does have some downsides. Characters are Manichean. It triggers easy emotions. Some events are far-fetched (e.g. the feud between Mary and Edith, Kemal's heart attack). It mostly shows early 20th century as good old times and aristocracy as a benevolent power. The worst villains are all non-aristocrats: O'Brien, Thomas, Carson's ex-stage partner, the drunken mob at the suffragette rally.
However, most of these drawbacks can be explained by the series format, which generally requires simplification to maintain attention on the long term. Hence as a series it probably rates 9/10 for all the qualities briefly described at the beginning of this review. The final rating 8/10 is an average of the two: entertaining and convincing but not essential.
I am not as over the top about this series as the rest of the world seems to be. There is no doubt that it is a very competent work with high production values and an enormous budget. But I never felt any "love" for any of the characters, and I never felt that desire that you can feel when a work of fiction is really, really good, to be part of it and live in that world there with them.
I think both the best and the worst thing with this series was its realism. For instance, the class differences are not so exaggerated as in many works of fictions that deal with castles, lords, nobility etc.. Which is a good thing if it is a correct period piece you want - but you never feel that magic and admiration that you feel for, for instance, Mr Rochester brooding in his Thornfield Hall... There is no romance here, and no mystery.
Also, some story lines took up too much time, for instance the elderly ladies' intriguing about the charitable hospital positions, and the Mr Marston-his son-his farm-Daisy intrigue. I found both of these stories very tedious. Also, I think it was a mistake to make a long-drawn out detective story about the Mr Bates-and-his-wife's death-thing. It felt out of place and as a cheap attempt to introduce something spectacular that would rise the audience' interest when it was waning.
For me this series was more education than anything else. For as such it is very good, because it captures the period perfectly: the social changes, the women from the higher classes starting to work a little outside home, the young people moving to towns to find work in factories, shops, restaurants etc. instead of working as hired farmhands or servants at private estates. I have had some relatives, now long gone, who were born in the beginning of the 20th century. This was their world when they were children and young people, and I feel that this series has made me understand their way of reasoning better!
I also much appreciate the great attention to detail in clothes, hair-styles, furniture, ornaments, cars, music, dancing, and other things. You really feel yourself transported to this time period!
Oh my. I just changed my 10 star review to 5. Downton Abbey really turned out to be an incredible disappointment. What a silly, silly show. Yes, the acting is wonderful. The costumes and sets are sublime. The music is wonderful. But the writing? Oh dear, how embarrassing. What really gets me, more than the soap-opera-esque plot lines that insult even average intelligence, is how many of the plots just drop off into thin air, while other torturous boring plots just won't ever end. Plots that go nowhere actually started in right in the beginning with Season 1. Examples of Plots in DA that go absolutely no where: 1. The first plot that really got me interested in the show was The Countesses plot to "smash the entail." As she sits there with Lady Grantham discussing this, we discover not only that the countess has the conniving intention to radically smash the entail but also the juicy indication that she and the countess are not friendly mother and daughter-in-law. What a wonderful set up for things to come. Didn't you think this was going to be the central theme of the entire series? I was so intrigued. But these two plot lines go absolutely nowhere. There is no "smashing of the entail" nor any real attempt to do so. Lady Grantham is told "sorry Charlie. Your money is tied up in the estate for good," and the plot is dead, face down in the water. And the tension between mom and daughter in law? Nothing. What a waste. 2. Second potentially great plot line (if a bit silly) that really goes nowhere: The Turk in Mary's bed who just suddenly dies. A healthy 22 year old just dies? Didn't you think it was going to be poisoning or something? Didn't you think we were going to find out why he died? Nope. The only thing that comes of it is a silly sister quarrel and Edith's attempt to tattle tale. The word ridiculous comes to mind. 3. Another potentially good plot that goes no where: Ethel's flirtations with the farmer. Now this could have been really really good. Rich young woman getting involved with a poor farmer – uh-oh a MARRIED farmer But nope. Goes nowhere. 4. Next plot that disappears (kind of glad actually) like a fart in the wind: The disfigured military dude who says he is Patrick- the heir to the estate that supposedly died on the Titanic. This is where I really turned my back on Downton Abbey. I literally laughed out loud. But even if the plot line was soap opera silly in the third degree, at least have the plot properly develop and resolve. Once again the plot falls off a cliff: The mysterious soldier suddenly makes an unusual gesture that Lord Grantham recognizes. Remember that? What was that gesture? Interesting.... Where will this go? whups... Nope. Goes nowhere. 5. Lady Grantham is pregnant? Ooo this is good! What if it is a boy? The heir to the estate is in question again. Uh. Nope. Within 10 minutes of finding out she is pregnant she slips on soap that her lady's maid leaves on the floor outside the tub and loses the baby. Next. 6. Lord Grantham's "affair?" Sloppy, rushed, no development, no anticipation, no build. He just suddenly leans over and kisses a maid. Really really awful. Yet with all these potentially interesting plots that don't develop and/or completely dissipate, we are forced to endure other plots that leave us utterly exasperated. I really couldn't have endured one more minute of the 20 year old Anna and the 50 year old fat-faced Bates, yet we were tortured with this stupid tale for 2 seasons. OK. Nuf said. Downton Abbey has made me Down-right Crabby.
If you thought Gosford Park needed to be a shallow, episodic TV series, you might enjoy this. Even Maggie Smith (and her character) has been borrowed wholesale to ease your transfer. And what luck, the theme music is a thinly veiled knock-off of the title music from The Piano. But Gosford Park wrestled with matters of substance, and showcased some striking film technique.
This show is teeming with "decent" characters (translation: progressive) none of whom could have existed historically, and none of whom can inject the show with any surprises. The show shoots the bolt in the first two episodes where Lord Grantham defends and acts as co-equals with two different servants. Hooray for time-traveling with anachronistic values. The show never rises above soap opera by larding itself down with drippy conflicts, and boatloads of shallow female matters. The elevated estrogen level torpedoes any real intrigue.
I'm amazed to find that not only do many Americans give high marks to this badly written, poorly directed, and frequently ham-acted period soap opera but so do plenty of Brits.
For me it's all in the writing, which is awful. Not just that much of the history is incorrect or missing key elements but the characters are never fleshed-out and remain one-dimensional. Plot lines quickly fade away, never to reappear without any just cause. Other plots go on for far too long.
The writing by Julian Fellowes, is surprisingly poor, even for an actor. The obvious lack of research is for me unnerving. Worse than that is Fellowes simply plagiarizes most of the story and even characters. A little Waugh, Jan Struther, Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, Coward, Alcott, Forster and Christie to name but a few. Even Maggie Smith's character comes off as one dimensional; a sassy dowager stock character with nothing to offer other than witty one-line barbs.
If Fellowes' name (I only know of him as the writer of Gosford Park - but that film had a strong director, Robert Altman) is enough to get a project green-lighted, surely the production budget allows enough for a script doctor? Downton Abbey is in dire need of one.
And because I am familiar with a few of the fine actors in Downton Abbey, watching them wrestle with a weak script and simply terrible plot lines, it's embarrassing to witness. Only Siobhan Finneran seems to be able to rise above the putrid pablum.
Yes the gowns, jewels, men's suits, complexions, interior sets, exteriors etc...are all gorgeous and beautiful. But that's it. There is nothing beneath the exquisite facade. No substance.
It's incredible how many awards this trash has won in both the UK and US. Downtown Abbey should be shown to screenwriters and playwrights for how NOT to write. It's also incredible that this program scores so highly on IMDb; just unbelievable.
If you like period dramas, Masterpiece Theatre, BBC stuff - you should search out Granada TV's 1981 Brideshead Revisited, PBS' 1970's Upstairs Downstairs (produced by the excellent John Hawkesworth) or Christine Edzard's Little Dorrit (1988), BBC's more recent Bleak House (2005) and Little Dorrit (2008).
Back in the 1980s Granada made two long drama serials at almost the same time. One was "Brideshead Revisited" based on Evelyn Waugh's novel and the other was "Jewel in the Crown" – the dramatisation of Paul Scott's extraordinary "Raj Quartet". Both these series were masterpieces and if you watch them today you will find they have stood well the test of time. The drama tradition of Granada, of some of the other commercial companies and, of course, of the BBC is strong and is something of a jewel in the crown of British television. It is also an important source of revenue, not least in the United States, where posh British TV has a small but well-heeled following. This brings me to "Downton Abbey", superficially in the great tradition and with obvious links also to the very successful and ground-breaking "Forsyte Saga" and "Upstairs Downstairs" of the 1960s and 1970s. Downton is set in the second and third decades of the twentieth century and we have moved from Edwardian complacency and excesses through the horrors of the Great War to the early 1920s. As with "Upstairs Downstairs" we see life, and to an extent history, through the eyes of the aristocracy and simultaneously from the perspective of those in the Servants' Hall.
Over the 16 episodes that have so far been transmitted, spanning the years 1912-1920, the stories are reminiscent of a Soap like "Eastenders" or "Coronation Street" in that there are episode ending cliff-hangers and improbably extreme story developments. Every historic event from the sinking of the Titanic through women's suffrage, the Irish independence movement, the Battle of the Somme, the post-war Flu epidemic and many others is a trigger for something to happen in the plot. In addition we have adultery, murder, homosexuality, alcoholism, illness and recovery or death, the black market, inter-class affairs and marriage, and most of the seven deadly sins in sharp relief. The stories are often signalled rather obviously and it is an amusing parlour game to predict what will happen next - as with any soap. Taken as a whole the story is totally preposterous and the "issues" are not handled with any subtlety at all – there is none of the restraint of a Galsworthy, a Waugh or a Scott.
The starting point for Downton Abbey was in the creative mind of the writer Julian Fellowes and its main inspiration was clearly that author's film script for "Gosford Park" - which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2002. But whereas this film lasts a couple of hours and was tightly directed by Robert Altman Downton goes on for 20 – and running! The characters are largely pastiches of real people. Maggie Smith, for example, is wonderful as the Dowager a figure straight out of Pantomime - Dame Maggie overtly seeks hisses from the stalls. Fine actors like Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton and Dan Stevens struggle with a script that is always close to parody and sometimes spills over into farce. Indeed at times there is a slight sense that they know what they are being asked to say, or the absurd plot twist in which they are expected to participate, has moved into lampoon territory and that Mel Brooks or the Directors of "Airplane" or "Something about Mary" are in charge.
The great strength of Brideshead Revisited, Jewel in the Crown and the Forsyte Saga is that the stories had passed the tough test of being seen as credible in the original novel format. They were great books before they became great television. The original screenplay of "Downton Abbey" has had none of the checks and balances that apply to the written word. And because the medium is only to be visual, and in a number of time-limited episodes, it is presumed that there is a need to provide colourful action rather than attempt any true characterisation. We are supposed to like the Earl of Grantham because he is a benevolent toff – fragile but caring with a true sense of noblesse oblige. But compare his character, which is utterly superficially sketched, with the way that Evelyn Waugh gradually introduces Lord Marchmain in Brideshead - we feel we know the Marquess long before we meet him. The same superficiality applies to Downton's "below stairs" characters most of whom are stereotypes we have met frequently before.
The visual impact of "Downton Abbey" is strong and in this area the production values are high. The sets, both in the studio and on location, are beautifully designed and the costumes and other artifacts are good and look authentic. There is a strange paradox here which I suspect has led some to assume that because it looks good then it is good - perhaps ignoring the often wooden acting and sloppy direction. Downton's viewing figures are good and this is no doubt reflected directly in the income received from advertisers and the revenue from the sale of overseas rights and DVDs etc. - it is evidently a profitable venture. So a legitimate response to those critics who deplore the triviality of the series would be to never mind the quality and weigh the receipts.
There is nothing really wrong with "Downton Abbey" if you see it for what it is – a Soap of fleeting interest with can pass the time on an autumnal evening. However Downton does take itself quite seriously at times and some of the acting is so pompously self-important that it can only be seen as light comedy, which it isn't meant to be, or over-written moralising trash - which at times it comes dangerously close to being.
DOWNTON ABBEY is one of the things the British do best. This seven part series has it all - crisp dialogue, stunning settings/scenery/costumes, an all-encompassing view of class distinction not only between the upper class or gentry versus the middle class (who often have as much money but come into via labor versus inheritance) but also among the servant class, and a cast of many of the finest British actors before the public. Julian Fellowes is in fine form here as the writer, taking on a story about 1912 England and the microcosm of Downton Abbey, a mansion and grounds run by the elegant Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his mother Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith at her best), and Cora Crawley Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern0 - the moneyed American whom Robert married in order to retain the Abbey and their daughters, Ladies Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Much of the story revolves around the problem of inheritance (entailment) as the heirs apparent to the Abbey are victims of the Titanic disaster that opens the story. The Abbey must be passed on to a monied heir and the hunt is on.
As with other Masterpiece Theater pieces this story examines the 'upstairs/downstairs' bifurcation of the Abbey and the cast of characters 'below' is as fine as the gentrified owners: Mr Carson (Jim Carter) is the head voice, followed by Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), the footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) who just happens to have had an affair with the visiting Duke who could have been the new heir, and the new valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle) - a man the staff doesn't tolerate because of his use of a cane due to a war injury, etc etc etc. They are all fascinating people with their own set of prejudices not unlike those of their masters.
The story progresses along the lines of finding a new heir for the Abbey, a problem that involves everyone in the household, and it is this strange playing out of English class distinction that makes the series so engrossing. Another classic form the Masterpiece Theater.
...and this show is the perfect example. I managed to watch both seasons in just 2 days. It was like reading a good book, I just couldn't put down my laptop :) I am doing the second round right now, taking it slower and enjoying it minute by minute.
I have to start by pointing out that the writing is not perfect. The plot is not exactly new, you may have seen or read something similar a thousand times before. The lack of originality in writing is usually a deal-breaker for me but in this case, I must say that I am astonished by how much I like this particular show. I believe there are several factors responsible for that.
Firstly, there's the acting. The characters in the show may seem kind of black & white at first but as the story continues and plot unravels, you realise there's more than meets the eye to everyone involved. The actors are doing superb job peeling of the layers and showing the viewer what's hidden underneath. Also, I feel it's very simple to connect with the characters, there are those you instantly like and root for and those you're almost allergic to but even they may surprise you and make you question your point of view.
Second element that puts this show on the top is its visual side. The costumes are highly detailed and altogether breathtaking. I don't remember when was the last time I was so inspired, the fashion of the era was so beautiful and the show displays it in all its glory. I also enjoy the environment of Downton. The show was shot in a real location and it's not just another piece of studio work that makes you claustrophobic. You get the sense of real space in every scene, every shot, which is so rare these days with most of movies and TV shows using computer technology all the time.
The last thing I feel I have to mention is the music. The scoring in Downton Abbey is very delicate and yet very powerful. It perfectly underlines the story.
In conclusion, I cannot say there's no place for criticism and improvement in Downton Abbey but despite its insufficiencies it's still one of the best shows on television these days because it stays true to certain standards that we might have forgotten lately and I am truly thankful for such a beautiful reminder...
I really liked it!! And though I found myself wanting more, more!, I have to admit that the compactness of this series (only 7 episodes) is likely critical to what kept it excellent. Limited to a finite number of episodes, a story can be tight and focused. If this one were to become a permanent serial, silly and "unnatural" (if that word can be applied to fiction) things might have to start happening in order to keep the plot going, and I'd be sorry for that.
As it was, my opinion is, it was excellent, all told. It had so much heart. A lot of feel-good stuff happened and yet it remained intelligent and elegant at the same time (if you ask me). I didn't find it a bit draggy (as I have read in another review here); from the beginning I was enchanted. It was so well turned out, and so nicely written.
In another review here, someone suggests that this production could have been more "daring." But if you ask me, fans of period films like this aren't looking for daring. There's enough daring on TV as it is. I'd say, if you're looking for daring - don't watch a period drama about the lives of Lords, Ladies and scullery maids. In the meantime, let the rest of us savour the lack of 'daring.'
plot spoilers to follow -
Criticism? Okay, I admit that maybe I did find one or two aspects to the plot somewhat over the top. I won't mention them all. But the whole Pamook thing? I don't know, that above all seemed a bit much. Would Lady Mary have been so easy? I find that hard to believe. Maybe this is where a bit of 'daring' was attempted? And in my opinion, it seemed out of place. I do like how the incident affected her character, though - she became a lot more human and likable. (With the exception of her ongoing nastiness towards Edith. She was way too cruel to Edith, overall, in my opinion, I don't care what Edith may have done or not done to "deserve" it. With all her advantages, Lady Mary should be much kinder and more sympathetic to an inferior sister. I feel sorry for Edith and I'd like to see something good come her way.)
Enough said. Lovely. Well turned out, well written, well acted. Tight. Two major thumbs up from me!
It reminds me of typical soap operas: shallow black and white characters, all good or all evil, lousy and predictable plots, silly intrigue, cheesy dialogue. If had lived in those times and under those circumstances, first thing I'd done would have been to kill myself.
Other than that it is somehow fun to watch and I can't quite put my finger on it. Is it the actors? They're definitely a treat. I love the kind of English they speak, it's nice to hear something intelligible for a change (I watch too many US shows). Is it middle-aged lord Fauntleroy (Earl Robert Crawley), whose only concern day in day out seems to be what to wear, when to wear it and how to wear it. Seriously, what's with that uniform he wears from morning to evening, it's hilarious :) Thanks to this show I now understand better why the french needed guillotines :) I guess this show is what is called a guilty pleasure.
The first few episodes were very interesting, but it slowly started to do downhill (especially after the 2nd season). Too many stories and characters, scenes ending too quickly - all recipes for not being able to connect with the characters. I actually find the Dowager Countess and Isabel Crawley the most entertaining and consistent characters. Edith could become one, but never gets the importance she deserves.
One of the mainstays of the first three seasons, the Mary and Matthew romance, fizzles after their marriage, with perfunctory "I love you" lines. They don't actually show the bond but give lip service to it - a lot like the rest of the series. The only consistently great thing is the production and period charm. The two people who do justice to their roles are already mentioned (dowager and Isabel). Cora grown on you too. Rest are average actors. By the end of the 3rd season I decided not to watch it any longer. Too soap opera with substandard acting (albeit great costumes and locales) for my liking.
I was looking forward to this but I was disappointed. This series is overrated. Am I the only one who thinks this isn't all that? Firstly the good points - the setting and atmosphere are well done. The grand old historic home location is quite attractive.
The WWI era setting should provide for interesting story lines but it all seems very clichéd. Very little happens in one season - the plot could have been covered in a third the time. The characters are one dimensional with simplistic good guys and bad guys. The nephew and heir Crawley and his mother are too goody two shoes and self righteous. The actress playing Lady Mary, Michelle Dockery isn't pretty and has a cold unappealing look with a blank expression. She isn't watchable. Not right for a leading role. The idealistic political daughter is annoying. Elisabeth McGovern as the Countess is a bit painful to watch with her crumpled looking expressions. Maggie Smith as the dowager Countess has good delivery as usual but she shouldn't have won an Emmy for that. It's hard to feel for any of the characters because they are so cardboard cutout.
The "help" are way too clever and conniving it's unreal especially the evil butler. The story is weak and soap like. Only the last episode of season 1 had some forward momentum.
I'll probably still watch it to see what happens but don't be fooled - it's well produced fluff masquerading as an adaptation of great literature.
I will admit upfront I was more than a bit dismissive about Downton Abbey upfront. It sounded like another attempt at recreating Upstairs, Downstairs. I knew of the pedigree of Julian Fellowes, having watched and enjoyed Gosford Park. The acting and writing were first rate there, but I found much of it to be overly romantic about a system designed solely to benefit the privileged. In Gosford Park, that world is the setting for a mystery,; here, it's a soap opera (ok, drama). Doesn't sound appealing to a firmly middle class American revolutionary,does it? And yet, it is.
Fellowes is a cagey writer. Just when I want to take him to task for romanticizing an oppressive system of privilege, he goes and has characters do just that. Meanwhile, he makes these characters real people, both in the privileged world and the subservient. They have virtues and their shortcomings. They love and hate and scheme; yet, they have real emotions. Even the nastiest, most self-interested character has moments that help you understand what lies at the heart of their outlook and their plans.
The cast are all first rate and I noticed many familiar faces; but, I must single out Maggie Smith and Penelope Whilton. They are a treat to watch as they spar. Smith has always been a force, but I have enjoyed Whilton more and more, ever since I first encountered her in Cry Freedom.
The rest of the cast are equally up to the task and play all sides. Even when we learn to hate Thomas and O'Brien for their plots and schemes, they let their guard down and give you a peak at the insecurities that drive them. The two actors get a lot of meat to work with and don't waste an ounce of it.
The time period is very revealing, as we see how this social system began to crumble, with the war and the cries for change. The family sees its youngest daughter become an activist and a nurse, wanting to be a positive force for change, even at the loss of her privileged life. We see young men go off to war and the horrors it inflicts upon them. We see the losses of the families left behind and how their world has been turned upside down, for good or ill. We see the casualties of war, as they try to rebuild their lives, but things are never as they were. We also see a romance that twists and turns, thrust together and pulled apart. We get to see the neglected ones shine through, the faithful rewarded and hurt. In short, we see life, even if it is tweaked for dramatic purposes.
No, this isn't just another romanticized period drama. It's a bit more than that. Not quite a historical record, not just a character study. It's what the best of literature and drama should be; a commentary on life via a slight distortion of it. It uses a different world (whether place or time) to allow us to see our world without our blinders that help us get through the day to day. I certainly want to see the show continue, but hope they have the good sense to wrap it up when it is logically time to do so. There is always pressure to keep a successful series going, well after all of the stories have been told. Let's hope the curtain comes down when it should; just not quite yet.