It’s easy to see why Downton Abbey, a four-part drama that opens the 40th season of Masterpiece Classic on PBS, was the highest-rated period drama on British television since Brideshead Revisited in 1981. It’s a juicy soap opera in Edwardian clothing—and that’s not a criticism. The show’s creator and head writer, Julian Fellowes, manages to brilliantly portray the lives of 18 main characters, the upstairs and downstairs residents of a stately country house, from the spring of 1912 to the beginning of World War I in 1914.
Fellowes, also a novelist and a sometime actor, previously wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, so the interconnections of servants and masters in a stately home isn’t new material for him. But in Gosford Park, the humor and drama came from the collective cynicism and debauchery of its characters; its central theme was that corruption spreads to all the floors of the houses we live in. In Downton Abbey, Fellowes softens the edges: There are many more likable characters, starting with the master of the house, the Earl of Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville as a benign dictator smart enough to realize that the world is rapidly changing around him.
The series opens with the Earl receiving a telegram about the sinking of the Titanic. His cousin and his cousin’s son have drowned, leaving the future of Downton Abbey in peril. The Earl and his American wife (Elizabeth McGovern) have three daughters, none of who can inherit it, so the estate and all its money will pass to a distant cousin. Since the series is based on an original script, there are elements one wouldn’t normally find in, say, an Edwardian novel adaptation, like the homosexual affair between a servant and a member of the ruling class. These subplots could have come across as salacious additions to attract a modern audience, but instead, they make the portrayed world of Downton Abbey seem all the more realistic.
Like almost all British television shows, the acting is frequently inspired. Maggie Smith plays the Dowager Countess, the mother of the Earl, as a droll snob. Even though it’s similar to performances she’s given many times before, her rivalry with Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), mother of the inheriting cousin, is reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse at his best. Another standout is Michelle Dockery, who plays the conflicted, unyielding eldest daughter, in a nuanced performance that projects intelligence, entitlement, and doubt in equal measure.
Because of its immense popularity in Britain, Downton Abbey has generated no shortage of controversy. Fellowes has been accused of lifting plots and ideas from Little Women and Mrs. Miniver, among other sources, and there have been suggestions that Fellowes, a conservative, is glorifying the rigid class structures of the Edwardian age. It’s a criticism with some merit, especially in light of a sequence in which the Earl of Grantham demonstrates the largesse of the aristocracy by paying for his cook’s (Lesley Nicol’s) eye surgery.
But to only see Downton Abbey as an ideological paean to a simpler past is to completely misread it. The central theme of the series is the struggle between the comforts of stasis and the potential rewards of progress. For every Mrs. Patmore, the cook who wants nothing more than to stay in service the remainder of her life, there is a housemaid such as Gwen (Rose Leslie), who dreams of becoming a secretary in a modern office. It’s these dichotomies, and the way they exist within both the Abbey itself (half the rooms have electricity and half don’t) and its multifaceted inhabitants that make Downton Abbey not only the best soap opera currently on television, but one of the most relevant as well.