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Downton Abbey: Seasons 1-3

(PBS; US DVD: 1 Oct 2013; UK DVD: 5 Nov 2012)

There’s an interesting narrative going on right now in the mayoral election for New York City. Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio is running on a platform he’s calling “A Tale of Two Cities”, highlighting the deep divide that exists between the rich and poor in the city. His pledge is to even out the playing field a bit, and it’s working astronomically in his favor. He’s been leading in all major polls by a whopping 45 percentage points, and more or less has been ever since the primaries. A New York Times article recently predicted that de Blasio is set to win the election by “historically wide margins”. Clearly, he’s hit a nerve.


Two years ago, a similar narrative captivated the city: Occupy Wall Street. For two months in 2011, protestors fed up with the unequal distribution of wealth pitched tents in the Financial District and refused to budge, until the government finally forced them out on a technicality. Occupy Wall Street made waves all around the globe, heavily influencing the direction and rhetoric of the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. The effects of the movement are still being felt the world over.


Indeed, without Occupy Wall Street’s influence, it’s hard to believe that de Blasio’s campaign would be getting as much support as it is. Inequality has always been a hot button issue, but recently stories of the lower class struggling against the upper class seem much more prominent. And this isn’t only in the States – across the pond, the theme is often just as popular, as well.


Take the enormously popular Downton Abbey, the multi-award winning series from PBS Masterpiece. Set in the early 20th century on the Yorkshire estate of the Earl of Grantham, Downton chronicles the lives of the aristocratic family that inhabits the estate and the men and women in service who wait on them night and day. Tensions between the rich and poor are inherent in the show from the beginning.


The plot begins when news of the Titanic, another iconic example of class disparity, reaches Downton. The Earl, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), who has three daughters – Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) – learns that his only male heir and cousin, Patrick Crawley, was aboard the ship and is now missing. Thanks to a rigid law, Downton, as well as Lord Grantham’s entire fortune, cannot go to his eldest daughter Mary.


Next in line to inherit is an obscure third cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a lawyer who lives with his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) in Manchester. Matthew and Isobel aren’t as privileged as their relatives and are more accustomed to doing things on their own; their awkward adjustment to life at Downton is slightly embarrassing for everyone involved.


All of this is witnessed, at times more clandestinely than others, by the servants who live downstairs and work tirelessly to keep Downton running – food on the table, dinner served properly, beds made, rooms cleaned, fires built. What’s so captivating about Downton Abbey is that the servants, normally relegated to little more than background roles with perhaps a line or two, are here thrust into the forefront, wholly realized characters themselves and often the ones we care about most.


As the Crawleys deal with banal problems like who they will marry, throwing the right dinner party, and making a good impression on their guests, the servants, who have their own issues in life and love, often struggle just to get by. A rich cast of characters rounds out this ensemble, including Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the head butler, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the head housemaid, and Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt) and John Bates (Brendan Coyle), a maid and valet who strike up a complicated love affair. 


Downton Abbey made a large impression stateside when it premiered, and it’s easy to see why. Premiering just one year before Occupy Wall Street began, I won’t go so far as to say that Downton Abbey had any direct correlation to that movement. But it’s interesting to note that a show that concerns itself with how the 99 percent fare in comparison to the one percent, especially in times of war, was on TV at roughly the same time.


Aside from any obscure politics, though, Downton is a simple show without frills and ornamentation. It’s a tonic for the ostentatious, big-budget, plot-driven spectacles that explode over American screens, both large and small. Rarely do we leave the expansive estate in which the Crawleys live, and when we do, the action always comes back to Downton. It’s an extremely grounded series, and that deserves a lot of credit.


But that doesn’t mean that it’s a show that doesn’t change, either. As historical events come and go and the years pass, relationships shift and change as well. With the advent of new technologies like the telephone and gramophone, crises like World War I and the Spanish flu, the tones of the three seasons are very different from one another. Through it all, though, Downton Abbey makes you care about the characters, and the superb writing is much more concerned with letting the actors do their job than it is with presenting a new twist each episode.


That’s not to say it’s not without its faults. Mercifully, the plots never devolve into the kitschy conceit of mirroring downstairs what is happening upstairs, instead letting the two plotlines intersect and influence one another. That doesn’t stop Downton Abbey from feeling a bit like a soap opera at times, although without most of the more significant melodramatic elements one would expect from that genre. Occasionally, mistakes are made in which characters must live with the consequences, but more often than not, problems are easily dealt with.


The Crawleys turn out to be exceptionally understanding overlords, often using their vast wealth to take care of very serious problems for their employees. But ultimately, while the discrepancies between the upper and working classes are never far from the forefront, Downton Abbey is a show that transcends those distinctions and focuses on relationships – between rich and poor alike.


It’s also really, really pretty to look at. Filmed at an actual Manor House called Highclere Castle, Downton Abbey is spectacularly shot, especially in High Definition. Every detail on the show – from the sets, to the costumes, to the props – is impeccably detailed. The three-season Blu-ray box set comes with over three hours of bonus footage and special features, including a one-hour special called The Secrets of Hichclere Castle about the history of the house. The fourth season of Downton Abbey, already showing in the UK, begins on January 5th in the United States.

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Matt Grant teaches writing workshops to students in Harlem. He has a B.A. in film production and occasionally writes DVD and film reviews for PopMatters. He lives with his wife in Brooklyn.


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