Downton Abbey: An Antidote to Our Confused, Crass Times

PBS’ Masterpiece hit series returned this Sunday and proved itself more than worth the money I, inexplicably, shelled out for local TV in the meantime.

WHAT IT IS:

The best thing to further confuse and distort Americans' perceptions of historical events since Mad Men.

NO, REALLY, WHAT IS IT?

An all around well-made British drama set on a nobleman’s estate at the onset of World War I, where the problems of servants and socialites get equal screen time.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The two-hour premiere of season two plunged us right back into the world of the mysterious valet Mr. Bates, the conservative-yet-sympathetic Mr. Carson, the conniving maid O’Brien and the can’t-help-but-love-them aristocrats of the Grantham family upstairs, led by sweet Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), who is too good to be true, and sassy Dowager Countess played by Harry Potter’s teacher Maggie Smith.

Whereas season one of Downton Abbey was centered around the family’s efforts to preserve their estate (and reputation) in spite of a “too many daughters, not enough blokes!” problem, the universe in season two expands to encompass the problems of the British  nation as World War I unfolds to be a much larger undertaking than anyone bargained for. Especially handsome Matthew, who has way bigger fish to fry now as an officer than worrying about whether or not Mary (aka"Eyebrows", below) loves him.

You really screwed that one up, Eyebrows.

Two years have passed since we left the Grantham estate at the end of season one: now it’s 1916 and most of the male characters have moved on to serve in the war. Those left behind struggle to get on without them—or to find their own direct line to heroism.

Disillusionment with the war has yet to set in (except in one new character, Mr. Lang, who has PTSD). But for the most part, people are still innocently focused on “doing their bit”, whether it’s dodging bullets in the trenches or taking up nursing at the local officer’s hospital.

As the episode continues, however, the reality of war subtly creeps its way in--and the boastful national pride of the first half of the episode becomes a little less black and white.

WHY I’M HOOKED

I hadn’t thought of it until discussing with our editor-in-chief Rachel Hart, but I have to agree: after some of the junk food TV I’ve been feasting on, it’s refreshing to visit turn-of-the-century Britain, where everyone is buttoned up to their chins and innuendo goes no farther than a longing glance across a parlor.

No pornographic vampire sex. Just good old-fashioned, sharp-tongued dialogue traded across an impeccably decorated dinner table.

Remember that episode of Grey’s Anatomy when Christina was first falling for sultry trauma surgeon Owen? She's all a-twitter over that early, electric phase in a relationship when, like in a Victorian novel, the anticipation of "future events" makes three seconds of direct eye contact feel as a wild as three hours of foreplay. (I'm quoting the show, not experience.)

That’s pretty much what every second of Downton Abbey is like. Sweet, sexy anticipation with no promise of sex in sight. In fact, the sexiest exchanges that the handsome Matthew and “Eyebrows” have had so far, have consisted of—you guessed it!—Mary raising the eyebrow that was not already raised...in close-up.

Less is more again! I say give us less and less. It’s almost too sexy to bear.

Finally: the costumes. If you hate history—or British accents—just watch with the sound off. You will still be glued to the screen.

EPISODE HIGHLIGHTS

A new maid thinks she knows everything and actually earns O’Brien a few sympathy points. Mr. Carson reveals he is human, but is still huge self-imprisoning snob. Thomas is still evil. Lord Grantham sulks around like a freshly “cut” steer, envying the younger men their right to go to war. Edith (aka “the overbite”) learned to drive and for some reason decided to leverage her new power toward attempting to break up a marriage. Branson, the chauffeur is still lusting after strong-headed Sybil, who is a little busy tending to wounded soldiers. Nobody listens to Dowager Countess until it’s too late. Anna sees her hopes crushed almost as quickly as they’re raised. Handsome Matthew has a new lady in his life, which makes Mary’s eyebrows twitch. And homely kitchen maid Daisy toys with William’s emotions.

LIFE LESSONS I’VE LEARNED:

  • I’ve been pronouncing “valet” incorrectly. Or, not snobbishly enough.
  • If you’re in need of a transition, just film a car driving towards or away from the building your story is set in. Run it over and over. No one will notice.
  • When serving the gravy, start with the Dowager Countess lest everyone’s appetites be put off forever. I mean, really.

NEXT EPISODE AIRS:

Sunday, January 15 at 9pm. Here’s the entire schedule, or “shed-jewel.” Also, you can watch online!

 

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