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.
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.
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.