Hi, my name is Lindsay, and I have a problem. I’m an Abbey-aholic. I hang on to every gesture and subtext between Matthew and Mary, I get excited by the prospect of a Bates-Anna non-platonic interaction, and I desperately want to be as cool as the Dowager Countess when I’m that old.
If you’re out-of-the-loop, then you have no clue what I’m talking about. It’s Downton Abbey, the British series airing on PBS and currently taking the U.S. by storm (because even though we declared our independence centuries ago, many of us are still anglophiles). Or as I like to think of it only the greatest melodramatic soapy goodness set in early twentieth century Britain. If you’re a super fan, then you already know all the cool kids are talking about it. (Seriously, it’s much-anticipated water cooler talk Monday mornings where I work.)
But why is DA so buzzworthy? Why all the fuss? Because it’s damn good television. Because it’s a good story. And I’m a firm believer that people are inherently attracted to good stories because as human beings we like to communicate with one another, and what better way to communicate than through entertainment?
Here are the elements that make Abbey so addictive and keep me (and millions of others) tuning in each week:
1) It’s well written. I was sick the first weekend I watched the show. My bestie had been begging me to watch, and it had been sitting in my Netflix queue for weeks (practically forever in Netflix terms). At first, I was unimpressed. Oh, a fancy mansion in Britain. There are the rich people, there are the servants, they all have problems. Snooze. I’ve seen this movie before, read this book. But then, but then…there was a twist. One I didn’t see coming. I sat up; I took notice. And I hit the button to immediately move on to the next episode. I marathoned that entire weekend while I convalesced. And I appreciated what I saw. There are nuances to actions and twists and turns to each storyline. Even the most mundane activities of cleaning the house are made interesting. The dialogue is snappy, as anyone who has even seen one scene with the Dowager Countess can attest. Which moves me into my next point…
2) The characters are fleshed out. Part of the set up DA is learning the intricacies of each character. These are characters we can care about, characters we can despise. They’re complex and realistic. Some characters slowly bloom, with different aspects of their personalities and pasts slowly unfolding as the story advances. Other characters are very upfront with who they are, but are then forced to grow and change when faced with circumstances they are unprepared for. The story arc of Lady Mary perhaps best exemplifies this. It is easy to grasp her character in the first season, and while she grows some during that arc, it is during the second season we have seen aspects of her personality heretofore unexplored. Furthermore, Lady Mary is just one of many strong female characters on the show. So many themes are explored within the confines of one household, and one of the more interesting ones is the role women play. With the advent of the second season and its backdrop of World War I, the roles the women play in the household have been expanded and re-evaluated. With no shortage of strong female characters, it is interesting to watch their interactions with one another, especially in the context of a patriarchal society bound by rigid gender rules.
3) It’s well acted. Part of why the characters succeed is the writing. The other part is the acting. Each character is nuanced, and there are subtleties to their actions. The actors are very good at embodying their roles and making you believe in this reality of twentieth century Britain. You understand each character’s motivations because it is in his/her line delivery or on his/her face or obvious in what he/she holds back. Plus, there’s a reason you keep hearing the cast’s names at awards shows.
4) Who doesn’t love an upstairs-downstairs mentality? As I said before, there are many themes explored in DA. One of the main ones is class and societal restrictions. This context is endlessly fascinating. Not only do we get to see the rich and noble, but we also get to peek behind the scenes, below the staircase to the inner workings of the house. Part of it is celebrity fascination—seeing how the wealthy live and then getting the real gossip on them from their servants. The other half is in capturing the everyday quality of the servants’ lives—their hopes, struggles and even the mundane tasks. It is the entirety of early twentieth century (and one could even sya modern) society compressed into the microcosm of a single household.
5) The clothes are fabulous, and the house is grand. And while all these weighty themes are being thrown around and dramatic scenes being well acted, let’s just admit it—it’s pretty. The attention to detail is fantastic. The Abbey fashion is enviable, and I sometimes wish I had a reason to dress for dinner and then I could steal one of Mary’s many evening dresses or try out Sybil’s flappertastic outfit. But what is even more amazing is the house. They actually film some at Highmere Castle, which serves as part of the inspiration for the storyline. And what’s even better, if you truly wanted to lose yourself in the DA realm, you could. The current earl and countess open their home to the public for visits. So the level of style seen in DA is attainable.
6) Dame Maggie Smith. Need I say more? She’s a scene-stealer. And she gets all the best lines in the show.
7) It’s easy to play catch up or re-watch your favorite episodes. Netflix and PBS make it super easy to play catch up or to immerse yourself in that world. Ah, the powers of the Internet and it anglophilia-enabling.
For super fans—a little fun to be had (Beware, there are some season two spoilers):
Downton Abbeyoncé: Your fave characters mix it up with Beyoncé lyrics.
Downton Pawnee: My two favorite shows combined! Ron Swanson meets the Dowager Countess.
Sh!t the Dowager Countess Says: Because we all know she gets the best lines.
Downton Abbey/X-Files: More cult favorites mashups.
Downton Actors in Street Clothes: Gasp! Yes, they’re real people and are slightly more glamorous in real life. Personally, I find this peek behind the curtain fascinating. Hello, Mr. Bates!
–By Lindsay Ray