Saturday, July 30, 2011

10 Reasons to Watch Downton Abbey

Britain's hit drama Downton Abbey, which follows the lives of an aristocratic family and the servants who work for them, took the world by storm last fall, much to the surprise of everyone involved in the show and those who thought it wouldn't be as great a success as it has become. It has acquired millions and millions of viewers worldwide since its premiere and has been highly-acclaimed by critics, most recently earning 11 well-deserved Emmy nominations. Fingers cross that it wins the majority of those on Emmy night!

I was fortunate enough to be in the UK while the series was being broadcast for the first time and I immediately fell in love with it from the start. I've seen it numerous times, so many that I've actually lost count, and have been trying to convert anyone who will listen to me go on and on about this show into fans. Always trying to spread the word, I have compiled a highly-biased list of what I feel are the top 10 reasons to watch this show. Feel free to disagree with me, these are simply my opinions. I only hope that I am convincing enough to compel others to heed my advice and watch it. If not, well then I have amused myself in making this list. Please note that there will likely be spoilers from the first series included.

And without further ado, here they are!

X | The Score

Downton Abbey's soundtrack is simply superb! Composer John Lunn does a fantastic job of providing such beautiful musical accompaniment that really fits with the show and enhances it. From the moment the opening credits roll, which is wonderful in itself, one is immediately sucked into the world of Downton and, at least in my case, there is no turning back. Like a fashion designer's collection, every piece is carefully crafted and cohesive with the others, and yet each manages to have its own feel while emphasizing and conveying the mood set in the scenes. It is without a doubt a large part of Downton Abbey's appeal. So much can be said about how marvelous the music is but it's much better to just listen to it and hear for yourself!

IX | Cinematography & Costumes

Let's face it, this show is just pretty to look at! Every bit of it is so visually pleasing, especially the way the camera pans across the scenery, that one is not able to look away! Filmed primarily at Highclere Castle, there couldn't have been a more perfect site for Downton to be set. It is eye-candy from the first scene to the last. Everything, the rolling hills, the castle, the driveway, the village, the halls, the dining room, the library, even the kitchens and attic are so beautiful and are depicted in such a surreal way that you might find yourself planning a trip to the very sites where the show was filmed just to experience it firsthand.

Image © PBS

And the costumes and hats! They are to die for! The costume department hit the nail on the head here and did a splendid job. Not only are the clothes historically accurate and reflect the characters' status and even their personalities but they personally make me wish that sort of fashion was still in style. Parasols and all! Except the corsets, I could do without those.

VIII | Historical References

Downton Abbey, spanning from 1912-1914 in Series 1, coincides with major events in history. From the start this is evident as news of the Titanic's sinking arrives by telegram and affects the Crawley family when the heirs to the Downton estate meet their demise on the ship. It is this historical moment that serves as the catalyst that sets the rest of the first series into motion and from there on everything else escalates for the family. As they say, shenanigans ensue!

While they may appear to be the simplest of things to those of us living in the 21st century, the use of electricity and invention of the telephone are a novelty in the show and it is amusing to watch how the characters react to their sudden appearance in their lives. What follows are humorous situations where characters are afraid of the vapors that will seep out of the newly-installed lighting and where no one wants to answer the phone because its ring is like the "cry of a banshee" ... or perhaps it is because they don't actually know how to use it!

During this time, the Suffrage Movement is also in full swing and attracts the youngest Crawley daughter who wishes to join the cause and finds herself in a spot of trouble for it. Allusions are made of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the trouble it has caused in Europe, and by the time the first series has reached its conclusion World War I has officially begun, leaving a sense of fear and anxiety among the residents of Downton. On the whole, a wonderful job is done in showing the inevitable societal changes and how it affects the characters, with the series ending on a cliffhanger that leaves the audience desperately wanting to know how the impending war shakes up life at Downton.

VII | Drama-filled Plot

Or more commonly referred to as "juicy plotlines"! As mentioned before, we're presented with the sinking of the Titanic and the repercussions that follow what with the estate suddenly being in jeopardy because the heirs are dead. Then there is the whole business regarding the entail (Austenites understand the concept better than anyone) which was apparently set in stone years before by the late Lord Grantham, and consequently having to find a new heir while trying to figure out what to do with the eldest daughter who can't inherit since, of course, she's a girl.

But the plot is also filled with scandal and secrets, hidden pasts and lies, of which I intend to give nothing away. It's actually very much like a soap opera, but if anything it's posh soap! There's always something going on and following the character's lives is both entertaining and overwhelming. It's a marvel how easy it is to get completely sucked into the plots. There is so much drama and comedy and angst, it's almost impossible to be bored when watching any episode and by the end of each you're likely to be wondering what your emotions are doing because it's hard to describe what you are feeling in regards to what you've just witnessed. That might just be me though.

VI  | Memorable One-Liners

Julian Fellowes, creator of this masterpiece along with the Academy award-winning film Gosford Park which can be said to be Downton's predecessor, is pure genius because the lines he has written are just fabulous! When you hear what comes out of the mouths of his characters, you wonder how does he come up this stuff? It's brilliant! The actors have called each script a real page-turner and what is transferred from page to screen is remarkable.

Who could forget Violet, the Dowager Countess' sarcastic remark, "Why does every day involve a fight with an American?" when sitting in and nearly falling out of a swivel chair invented by Thomas Jefferson and then proceeding to declare herself a "good sailor" when offered a new chair. Or my personal favourite (which my blog is named after) and perhaps the best known line in the series, "What is a 'weekend'?" which the Dowager asks with the utmost sincerity because in the life of an aristocrat like hers, weekends do not exist. In fact, everything Violet says is a hoot! More about her later!

Humor aside, some of the lines are memorable because they can be quite poetic at times. In particular, Lord Grantham's line, "We all have chapters we'd rather keep unpublished" stands out because of everyone's ability to relate to it. Who doesn't have a few things they'd rather keep quiet about eh? This and many more fantastic lines are part of the show's charm. Perhaps they're nothing special at all but they're quite nice.

V | Romance & Rivalry

It wouldn't be the same if there wasn't any romance to give you that gushy feeling inside, the kind that you feel when you read (or watch) Pride & Prejudice and Eliza and Mr. Darcy finally confess their love to one another and all you can think is "AWWWWWWWWW!"

The most captivating romances include the servants Anna and Mr. Bates (my favourite) whose relationship start off as friendship and slowly blossoms into something beautiful, and yet is a bit heartbreaking because Bates insists that Anna forget about him though she refuses to; Lady Mary and Matthew who are very much like Eliza and Darcy with their initial mutual dislike and who, after getting to know one another better, become engaged later on; and the vague relationship of Lady Sybil and the Irish chauffeur Branson is intriguing because of the social barrier they'd be crossing if they took things further. For these couples, we can only hope that they take a leaf out of Lord and Lady Grantham's book, in which their marriage was a matter of convenience and later on became one of love, and find happiness together in spite of the troubles that may come their way. And even housekeeper Mrs. Hughes reveals how she turned down multiple marriage proposals so that she could keep her job at Downton. You want angst, you got it!

And then there comes rivalry between lovers, sisters, friends, family, even people from some of the characters' past who they never expected to see again. This adds to the drama and provides great storylines to get caught up in.

IV | Villains

No proper drama is complete without characters we love to hate. The main antagonists take the forms of Sarah O' Brien, the lady's maid and Thomas, First Footman (otherwise known as the First Douchebag) who are the most manipulative, bitter, and spiteful people in the show. Whether it's plotting to get the valet Mr. Bates sacked or causing trouble for the family they serve, these two seem to have no limit when it comes to their desire to have their own way. Even Anna, head housemaid says of O' Brien, "We're all lucky if we get a civil word out of you" as she hardly has anything nice to say on most occasions. At least in last series' final episode, O' Brien felt some kind of remorse for her most recent act of unkindness which was possibly more evil than unkind to be honest. You'll just have to find out what she did for yourself because I'd hate to ruin the story. As for Thomas, he's still a major selfish d-bag.

III | Loveable Characters

[L-R: Lady Sybil Crawley, Lady Edith Crawley, Lady Mary Crawley, Cora, Countess of Grantham; Robert, Earl of Grantham; Violet, Dowager Countess; Matthew Crawley, Charles Carson, Elsie Hughes, Thomas Barrow, Sarah O' Brien, William Mason, Mrs. Patmore, John Bates, Daisy Robinson, Anna Smith, Gwen Dawson]

One cannot help but fall in love with these characters that Julian Fellowes has created and developed so thoroughly, whether hero or villain, aristocrat or servant. Within this upstairs/downstairs dynamic involving the Crawley family and their servants, there are are up to 20 main characters and each has something significant about them that allows them to appeal to a wide demographic (22 countries around the world!) and makes the audience come to genuinely care for them and want to know more of their respective stories. And, believe me, everyone has their own back-story!

As Dame Maggie Smith put it, "There are so many stories there with so many characters involved that it is a truly ensemble piece. It’s not as though there are any individuals really - it’s a whole company piece. And I think that’s interesting. I think the viewers love to know what’s happening in Carson’s [the butler] life as much as what’s happening in Daisy’s [kitchenmaid] and Mary’s [eldest Crawley daughter]." How right she is! Speaking of Dame Maggie, this bring us to Reason #2 ...

II | Dame Maggie Smith

Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess; Image © ITV

The Grand Dame herself! Need I say more? When you've got one of the world's greatest stage and film actresses headlining a show like this and proud to be a part of it, you know it's gonna be good! Dame Maggie plays Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, matriarch of the Crawley family who is there at every turn, poking her nose in everyone's business in which she believes she has a say. She is the epitome of the old aristocracy of the Edwardian Era and seems to care for nothing but that which concerns herself and her family, not to mention her disapproval of the changing world.

But what viewers will find is that beneath the snobbery, selfishness and inflexibility of this character there lies a kind woman with her family's best interests at heart, one made out of "pure custard", according to the Dame. With years of knowledge and experience, perfect timing both in comedy and tragedy, an extensive supply of facial expressions that make all the difference and the flawless delivery of her lines, Dame Maggie bring the Dowager Countess to life impeccably! And yes I am highly biased, this is my favourite actress after all and she is the reason I started watching in the first place. And besides, she has some of the best lines in the entire show and has been nominated for a 2011 Emmy in the category of Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for the role! What's not to love?

I | The Ensemble Cast

[L-R: Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Amy Nuttall, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Thomas, Howes, Joanne Froggatt, Brendan Coyle, Siobhan Finneran, Rob James-Collier, Dan Stevens, Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown-Findlay, Penelope Wilton] © ITV

And finally, the #1 reason to watch! The incomparable cast! Joining the Grand Dame are a fabulous group of people that brings the aforementioned lovable characters to life and makes their lives so intriguing and wonderful to keep up with. Everyone is at the top of their game when they really commit to their characters and it is amazing to witness. And to one's benefit, a new group of great actors is brought to attention and they are certainly notable stars to watch, especially the younger rising actors. This is very much an all-star cast and among the best that Britain has to offer! I classify them among the few flawless casts in existence. In short, they are truly what makes the show worth watching!

One might wonder, does the show have its flaws? Of course it does, just like everything else in this life. But what's important is that, while acknowledged and not completely overlooked, the flaws are seen past and that you simply have a bit of fun in Downton. It's a lovely way to leave the mundane behind for a while and escape into a beautiful world with beautiful people.

And if Downton Abbey doesn't appeal to you, well then, to quote dear Violet, "Put that in your pipe and smoke it!" Or you could always watch something else.

Downton Abbey returns in the autumn for its 2nd series on September 18th in the UK on ITV1. It will return to the US on January 8, 2012 as part of PBS' Masterpiece Classic. Do watch! The Dowager Countess commands that you do!

Images © Miranda Rachel unless otherwise stated


Anonymous said...

Awesome! You're spot on. Love it.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely beautiful post. I adore Downton Abbey so much, and truly cannot wait for it's return.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more. You've captured the essence (and the reasons for my addiction) of Downton Abbey in a single post! :)

Broedy said...

I agree x 10 (especially about Bates & Anna). Beautiful picspam too.

Elleoneiram said...

Marvelous post! I happen to think its flaws are very few and that it's a mixture of gorgeous escape and subtle and telling observation of human nature...

aindamais said...

Great post, I enjoyed reading it :) What I like a lot about D.A. (apart from the sheer and utter brilliance of DMS :D, and the fact that it reminds me of one of my favourite films, i.e. Gosford Park) is the fact that it does not have a single, all-important narrative, but that it consists of a dozen or so stories which, when intertwined, create a beautiful tapestry of the beginning of the century. I'm eagerly awaiting for the second season of this gorgeous period piece. Thanks for refreshing my memory with your list :)

Lisa said...

Awesome! I agree with your opinions. :) I miss watching Downton Abbey... I'm in Sweden, so I'll have to wait a long time for season 2.

Charleybrown said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly save for one omission: when discussing the romances, you didn't mention one of my favourite couples - the ongoing love story of Lord and Lady Grantham! I just hope that Julian Fellowes doesn't forget about them in season 2!

Miranda Rachel said...

Thank you everyone! Your comments are very kind a much appreciated! I'm glad you all enjoyed it :)

@Elleoneiram I agree that it has few flaws but there are those that take issue with the show and find many though I can't think why! I like the way you described Downton.

@Lisa Thanks, and I hope you don't have too long a wait before Downton arrives in Sweden :)

@Charleybrown Ahhh yes, I too love Lord & Lady Grantham and considered putting them in but my mind kept saying to keep it short and move on. But I think I will edit and put them in there too because their relationship is lovely!

Charleybrown said...

Miranda, glad to know that you liked Robert & Cora too! Don't blame you for trying to be concise as there is SO much to love about Downton!

songbird said...

i recently watched this and now i am a huge fan..each every character is so well written starting from carson to daisy to lord grantham i wanna know more about favourite characters have to be violet and branson and sybil!

Anonymous said...

Obviously not one person involved with this series needs my help. I think everything is perfect (and perfectly addictive). I taped the first season and watch it often. I fell in love with Julian Fellowes in Monarch of the Glen and have followed him ever since. He has perfect pitch and I trust him implicitly. I love each character (as drawn) and know what I wish for them but who needs my opinion and besides, what fun would that be? Can't wait for Season 2 (and on and on and on) but have my DVR copy of Season 1 and can dip in any time I like. This story is FABULOUS!

Anonymous said...

I forgot where I was - I'm truly sorry. Yes, your critique was spot-on (obviously I watch far too much British TV), but that's the only way to put it. My last post should appear just above this one. As a matter of fact, I've book-marked this site and will visit it regularly. Good job!

Miranda Rachel said...

Julian Fellowes is indeed a magnificent writer and he has created something truly unique and beautiful! Thank you for your comment, I appreciate it very much! And I am thrilled you see fit to visit my little blog, many thanks :)

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