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Downton Drama

Meghan Thomassen | Saturday, February 4, 2012

Masterpiece Classic’s host, Laura Linney, curled up with mugs of tea brewed in plug-in kettles, is a vision for college students who are ready to get lost in this year’s hit signature period drama, “Downton Abbey.” Smiling enigmatically, Linney sets the scene: a traditional Victorian family struggles to come to terms with the modern world.

Downton’s sociological theory is nothing to yawn at. This series has more secrets than social theory, more women of ill repute than ideologies of virtue — at least, not in places you would expect. 

In the series, the Crawley family teeters on the brink of scandal in the sumptuous halls of Downton, while the staff simmers downstairs in the dingy kitchen. In the first episode (spoiler alert), the Titanic sinks, a footman kisses a visiting duke, a cripple is made the new valet and the only child left to inherit Crawley estate is female.

While the staff may be characterized by their varying degrees of insubordinate and bold behavior, it is the lovely head housemaid, Anna, and her beau, the crippled valet, Bates, who capture viewers’ hearts.

Anna’s articulate honesty makes even the sorrowful Bates smile. Their selfless love story should be a lesson to the likes of Mary Crawley, the eldest daughter, who abuses the heart of poor Matthew Crawley, her suitor (and cousin). Of course, she falls for him eventually, but this realization is conveniently timed with Matthew’s inheritance of the entire Crawley estate. Chuck and Blair better watch out: there’s a new masochistic couple in town. 

For all the finery and good manners, Downton seems all the more vulnerable to corruption. The traditional Mr. and Mrs. Crawley watch on rather ineffectually, and sometimes enable their daughters as they descend into respective personal crises. 

As the Crawley’s entertain a parade of suitors, the series riffs on Jane Austen’s theme of courting, marriage and husbands, or lack thereof. 

Mary’s first lover, a Turkish ambassador, dies in her bed before anything interesting can happen. The youngest daughter, Sibyl, suffers as her intellectual side fails to gain her the kind of respect she desires and deserves. She eventually convinces her steadfast grandmother, Countess Violet Grantham (played by the brilliant Maggie Smith), to open Downton to wounded officers recovering from the trenches of World War I. Meanwhile, middle daughter Edith, overlooked by everyone, including her mother, rebels by learning how to drive and having an ephemeral tryst with a local farmer. 

The aristocracy disappoint again and again, so viewers naturally turn to the servants. While Anna and Bates fight his vengeful ex-wife for a life together, the meddlesome maid, Mrs. O’Brien, and the psychopathic footman, Thomas, pull Mrs. Crawley’s puppet strings, who in turn controls the strings of her husband. What motivates these malignant villains is unknown, but strange (albeit few and far between) exhibitions of mercy and compassion keep viewers guessing.

The best character, however, is Carson, the bear-like butler whose bark is worse than his bite. He stands by his lady, Mary Crawley, to preserve her honor, even when she is deeply in the wrong. His attitude doesn’t befit that of a servant, but a king — the other employees of Downton act accordingly. 

Carson serves as a model for the rest of the house: determined but aging, loyal but deceived. Viewers cannot help but cheer every time Carson wins a fight, but with each loss, they suffer, along with the headstrong butler, the tragedy of an era gone by. 

On a side note, the fashion of “Downton Abbey” may induce yet another retrospective trend, similar to that of the “Mad Men” craze catwalks experienced these past few years. Slender Mary frames the geometric, Orient-inspired gowns, which defined the British 20’s modernist movement. Fresh Sibyl boldly introduces the harem pant to women’s clothing, while Edith adheres to a wardrobe more resembling her grandmother’s than an unmarried girl’s. Towering heels and low-cut dresses a la Serena Vanderwoodsen may soon be replaced by the demure mystique of a British closet.

Drama defines Downton’s debonair delinquency. The characters’ eternal struggle to keep up appearances makes this series as addicting as it is visually stunning. As relationships develop and dissolve, viewers delve deep into the lives and loves of Victorian debutantes. Linney’s half-restrained smile speaks more than words; she knows her audience is in for a treat.

“Downton Abbey” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on PBS as a part of Masterpiece Classic.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Meghan Thomassen at mthomass@nd.edu