Binge Guide

Weekly Binge: Downton Abbey

We give you what you need to know to dive into the popular shows everyone's talking about.

by | December 23, 2014 | Comments

Welcome to the Weekly Binge, where we take a closer look at the shows that are worth your time. This week, we take a trip back in time to the waning days of the British aristocracy. Here’s what you’ll need to know before you spend some time at Downton Abbey.

 

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

What’s the premise? The residents and domestic staff of a grand English country estate deal with household intrigue and societal upheaval in the first decades of the 20th Century.

What’s it like? As with such beloved Brit imports as Pride and Prejudice and Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey is a period drama that both celebrates and critiques a bygone era, allowing viewers to revel in opulence while looking askance at the rigid societal norms of an earlier time. That said, the secret to Downton Abbey‘s success is that beneath its pristine facade, it’s as twisty and melodramatic as a soap opera, albeit one that maintains a veneer of class on the strength of its cast of Oscar nominees and BBC regulars.

Where can I see it? Season five premieres Sunday, January 4, on PBS at 9:00 pm. Season one through four are available for streaming on Amazon and iTunes; selected episodes can be streamed on PBS.org.

How long will it take? One of the many things to love about British TV is the brevity of its series. The first season of Downton is seven hour-long episodes, and the next three are eight each, so if you’re really dedicated, you can probably polish the whole thing off over the course of a week and a half.

What do the critics think? The first two seasons of Downton Abbey were met with rapturous, near universal acclaim. “Compulsively watchable from the get-go, Downton Abbey fulfills the Masterpiece designation more faithfully than just about anything else to grace the PBS showcase in years,” raved Brian Lowry of Variety. All of the first three seasons are Certified Fresh, but some of that critical luster had worn off by season four, which came in at a relatively shakey 69 percent on the Tomatometer. “Despite the occasional creakiness and lapses into melodrama Downton Abbey remains a show to watch, notable for its dreamy production values and the real depth of feeling it portrays between the classes,” wrote Diane Garrett of TheWrap.

Why should I watch this? With its lavish setting and British accents, Downton Abbey might look like your typical PBS prestige show at first glance. But Downton Abbey gives equal dramatic weight to the household staff and the Crawley family. Indeed, what makes the show so compulsively watchable is its richly nuanced characters, each of whom are bound by societal conventions but occasionally finds a way to expand their limits. Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the head of the estate, may be a snooty rich guy, but he’s also thoroughly decent — loyal to old friends, concerned about his employees’ welfare, and willing to be flexible in the face of societal change. At first, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) seems like a stuffy old bird, but you come to admire her sharp wit and extreme pragmatism. The show never fully celebrates or condemns its wealthy characters, nor does it heap nobility upon the servants; Downton Abbey places them into a context in which they all play the roles they’re assigned, but are also able to adjust to the upheavals of World War I and the Jazz Age. Let me put it this way: Downton Abbey is probably the only show on television that could make the loss of a tuxedo shirt a serious plot point — and make you care.

What’s my next step? A staple on lists of the greatest movies ever made, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game is a dark satire set in an opulent country estate, where aristocrats and servants intermingle with occasionally explosive results. Downton Abbey series creator Julian Fellows wrote the script for Gosford Park, which borrowed heavily from Renoir’s masterpiece (initially, Downton was conceived as a spinoff to Gosford Park). If you’re in the mood for another period drama about class divisions in England, the critically acclaimed Call the Midwife should do the trick nicely. And if you want to want to feel like an occupant of the Grantham’s estate, head over to PBS.org to purchase official Downton Abbey jewlery.

What do you like about Downton Abbey? How would you explain it to a newbie? Get in on the conversation here.

  • Lucy Adams

    The only good thing about having a horrible cold is that I have an excuse to lay around and binge on Downton Abbey. LOVE this show. Can’t wait for Season 6.

Tag Cloud

discovery serial killer MTV Exclusive Video cops CNN CMT BET Year in Review Certified Fresh History Opinion adventure Lifetime Awards LGBTQ Kids & Family Cartoon Network Nickelodeon Biopics Election TIFF Super Bowl Disney Channel Holidays FOX CBS All Access Logo boxoffice Toys PaleyFest Calendar Winter TV DirecTV Crackle Ghostbusters Hulu cooking El Rey Horror FXX Syfy Set visit crime drama 24 frames technology WGN OWN GIFs Video Games Marathons VICE Extras GLAAD TV Infographic crime thriller USA Nat Geo Esquire Food Network The CW Action TNT Teen Showtime Best and Worst Nominations politics Martial Arts diversity Pop harry potter docudrama Oscars TCA 2017 NYCC MSNBC Amazon SundanceTV Starz Character Guide Emmys Mystery Schedule Valentine's Day Adult Swim AMC Countdown thriller TBS Summer Reality Competition CBS ABC social media Box Office Grammys Superheroes travel Polls and Games Thanksgiving President DC Comics cinemax sports police drama period drama Music aliens TCM Reality Star Trek E! Animation Spring TV sitcom dramedy Disney 2015 Fall TV ESPN VH1 IFC comiccon Freeform Sneak Peek Universal APB Sci-Fi Marvel 007 TCA SDCC 2016 Cosplay ABC Family Pirates Photos TV Land Trailer TruTV Mary Tyler Moore Bravo ITV NBC Fox News A&E PBS Winners Trivia Sundance 2017 HBO Red Carpet Masterpiece RT History Netflix Drama Tomatazos war GoT based on movie Comic Book Rock singing competition Lionsgate Fantasy First Look Writers Guild of America science fiction Comedy Podcast Watching Series vampires BBC America Country X-Men BBC Rom-Com Tumblr biography Musicals Interview Comedy Central Star Wars Premiere Dates Rocky FX American Society of Cinematographers