Come on Downton

by Alexandra Sokoloff

(No spoilers!)

You knew I’d end up doing this, right? I can’t help myself, I get addicted to a show and it ends up on the blog. I’m hardly alone on this one, either: Downton Abbey is the most successful British TV show in the history of British TV. Oh, I see the Facebook posts, people complaining that they don’t know what people see in the show. Hah, where do I start? So grab yourself some tea, or champagne, or even better, one of those newfangled cocktails that The Dowager Countess says are “too exciting for before dinner” even as she gazes longingly toward the tray – and let’s talk Downton.


I’ve been a big fan of writer/creator Julian Fellowes since his sparkly, pitch-perfect murder mystery Gosford Park, so I was primed to like Downton.  Put the best of British TV (and film) stars together with stellar writing and what’s not to like?

On a writing level, the show had my undying attention from the moment Mr. Bates, painfully disabled from the war and dependent on a cane, looks up that endless staircase (that we have seen all the other servants rushing up and down since the opening of the show) and we realize that the valet job that means both survival and redemption for him is completely dependent on his climbing those stairs dozens of times per day.  Talk about establishing HOPE, FEAR, and STAKES in one perfect camera pan!

As a writer I have always been mystified and envious at the manipulative addictiveness of soap opera writing. When I first moved down to L.A., I’d not only never been into soaps, I totally disdained them. I didn’t even really watch television. But it seemed like every actor I got to know in those early film career years ended up with a gig on “Days of Our Lives.” You can see what’s coming, right? I started watching the show a time or two just to support my friends – and ended up worse than a crack addict over it; it took me years to break the habit.

Downton uses every soap opera trick in the book. It’s gleefully melodramatic; full of deaths and near-deaths, plagues and miracle cures; I’m still waiting for someone to fall into an extended coma. No one is allowed to stay happy for more than a few shows at a time. Everyone, postitively everyone, is always on the verge of a romantic entanglement, or a devastating breakup. The villains, Miss O’Brian and Thomas, positively skulk, and I love their seething-over sexuality. O’Brien especially is a study in repressive rage.

And every major historical event of the times is woven into the plot, giving you a false sense of virtuousness even as you’re gorging on eye candy.  And OH, is there eye candy to gorge on.

I have this theory that people like literature and movies from periods that they most admire the clothes from. Me, as much as I love noir as a genre, I could never pull off that style. With this hair? Renaissance, yes, Edwardian, fine, Regency also works. But my hair is too big and my waist is too short for the fashions of the 30s and 40s, it’s just the way it is, so those periods of time have always felt alien to me. But I’d feel right at home in Downton. Never mind the house porn, this is unabashed clothes porn. I am not above freezing frame just to marvel at details of stitching. And I love that the VERY best clothes are always on the older women, who would naturally have HAD the best clothes.  Maggie Smith wears this teal velvet dress that does things with light I’ve never seen before, and makes her skin translucent and those blue eyes of hers as luminous as jewels. And Elizabeth McGovern wears some net things that fit her like tattoos and are every bit as intricate.

The lighting design is as stunning as the costumes and shots are regularly reminiscent of masterpiece paintings.

And then there are the men.

Hugh Bonneville is delightful in everything I’ve ever seen him in, from Hugh Grant’s hapless failed stockbroker friend in Notting Hill to a charming sociopath in The Commander. While I’m cynical about the uber rich being moral people at heart, I love to BELIEVE that they could be, and Bonneville’s Lord Grantham can always be counted on to do the right thing.

Brendan Coyle absolutely slays me as Mr. Bates, the archetypal “man with a mysterious past,” a valet with demons. What catnip, right? And clever, steadfast Anna is the perfect woman to save him. I haven’t been so committed to a love plot in I don’t know how long. I must mention Bates’ estranged wife – Maria Doyle Kennedy, in a small but pivotal role, was a striking embodiment of evil and madness; I am almost sorry we won’t be seeing more of her.

Dan Stevens as heir apparent Matthew heads up the younger eye candy. With a sexy diffidence that recalls a young Hugh Grant, he is lovely as this character – but if you haven’t seen the extras that come with the i Tunes season pass, I highly recommend a viewing. Stevens is almost unbearably charismatic just as himself; I predict we’ll be seeing him cast in everything until the end of time.

I’m more enamored with the idea of an Irish revolutionary chauffeur than I am with the actual character, but there is some occasional heat between Branson and Lady Sybil that keeps me rooting for him.

I love the women, too. I liked Anna from the start but she also snuck up on me; I just wasn’t expecting her to be such a pillar of the show.

Three sisters are always a great character cluster and it works like a charm in the show. I disliked Lady Mary in the beginning but have admired how Fellowes grew the character to make her grow on me. Same with stunted middle sister Edith, who I’m now completely rooting for. Of course I instantly saw myself in crusading youngest sister Sybil (yeah, I took the “Which Downton Abbey Character Are You? quiz and it was Sybil all the way).

Mrs. Patmore and Daisy are a duo straight out of Shakespeare as the earthy cook and long-suffering kitchen maid; one of my favorite scenes of the whole show is Mrs. Patmore trying to explain to Daisy why Thomas is “not the boy for you.”

But the real heart of the show, as I’m sure no one will disagree, is Maggie Smith.  I would happily watch her read the phone book; she is perfect in everything she touches, but just as with Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock this is a priceless alchemy of actor and role. You spend half the show not breathing, just waiting to see what she’s going to say, or who she will simply LOOK at, next. Even if the rest of the show wasn’t so stellar, I would be grateful to Julian Fellowes until the end of time for creating a role so perfectly matched to her talents that will allow the world to enjoy her at the height of her talent – for as long as we have broadcast devices.  I get teary just thinking about it.  

Oh, all right, maybe I’m teary about something else, too.  But remember – NO SPOILERS!!!!

So how about you? What do you love – or hate – about Downton?  What do you think has made it the smash it is? 




18 thoughts on “Come on Downton

  1. JD Rhoades

    I watch that show primarily for Maggie Smith. My favorite line (which I hope doesn't contain too much of a spoiler) is when a particularly loathsome character stiffly tells her "I'll be leaving, my lady, and I don't believe we shall see one another again," and she asks with poisonous sweetness "do you promise?"

    However, while I know you adore Matthew, there are times I just want to give him the Don Corleone bitch-slap and tell him to get the hell over himself.

  2. Richard Maguire

    Like Barbie, I, too, know nothing about this show. But your post is fascinating, Alex.

    "Downtown" sounds like an earlier British TV show from the 70s or 80s, called "Upstairs, Downstairs". I've watched some of it in re-runs and it's also about "them toffs upstairs in the big house, and us below, who know our place." I agree with you about Julian Fellowes. A wonderful screenwriter. And if what I read was true, he was brought in to solve some of the trickier scenes in "Gladiator" that weren't working.

    You've sold me on this show, but I don't think it's on any station here in Germany. And when, and if, it is, it will be dubbed into German. That's not a problem for me with most American movies and TV shows, where hearing the original soundtrack doesn't really matter. But in this case, I'll buy the DVDs. As I did with "The Wire" and "Mad Men". Could you imagine Stringer Bell speaking in German? Or Don Draper?

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Richard, that's interesting about Gladiator – I'll have to find out! Love that movie.

    LOL at the idea of Stringer or Don speaking German. Um, no. You're right, you definitely want these shows in English.

  4. Barbie

    Alex, Downton Abbey is about as not my type as a show can get. It's not like I can't get it, it's just that it doesn't appeal to me. Also, reading spoilers from the latest episode, it made me sad.

  5. Nancy

    Love it! Best for me is the dynamics between O'Brien and Thomas. First season they were always scheming together and I wanted nothing more than for them to get it but good.
    This season I think I fear for Thomas! Those looks O'Brien gives could stop a watch. Every time he bucks her I just think, Dude…you are sooo going to get it!

    Favorite line was when Thomas has the issues with Lord Grantham's shirts and after his tale of woe Lord Grantham says with surprise something to the affect, "Are you not liked downstairs?" Hilarious! Understatement of the series!

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Ronald, I've seen it a bunch of times, too. There's just always something new to see. And Helen Mirren – kills me. In everything.

    Allison, really, I'm impressed at your screenlessness. That takes some doing these days!

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Nancy, you crack me up. Yeah, one of my favorite things about Season 1 was OBrien and Thomas smoking together. They MUST be evil, right? (But they enjoyed it so much it almost made me want to smoke.)

  8. Lisa Alber

    I didn't know Fellowes wrote "Gosford Park"! How could I not have known that? That's one of my all-time favorite movies…and now so much makes even more sense about "Downton Abbey."

    Thank you for mentioning Edith! I like her, I like her a lot. She was bitchy during the first season, but I began to like her in the second season when she worked at the farm (was that the second season?). She's the total underdog sister with inner demons but also brains. Re: Sunday's episode: I adored the honest exchange between her and Mary after you-know-what.

    I like Carson too. He's so old-world, and refuses to change, but he's got a good heart. I wonder if they're going to give him a subplot at some point…

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, I'm catching up on the season and now I'm not only liking Edith I'm rather uncomfortably identifying with her. I think that's vague enough not to be a spoiler.

    Yes, Gosford Park – I never get tired of it. I've watched it a couple of times again in the last month while waiting for more Downton episodes. Seriously, someone should just shoot me.

  10. Sarah W

    I'm glad to see I'm not alone in my Downtonless life . . . from what I've heard, I'd love it to obsession, but I don't have time these days for TV.

    I'm too busy enjoying quality movies like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

  11. Margaret Maron

    I loved DA through the first two seasons, but now it's getting silly and the Bates imprisonment is being stretched out too long. And the last episode? Unbelievable elements which I won't mention here except to say that the level of expertise from each professional was backwards, even though necessary to set up ensuing episodes. This is probably the last season I'll watch it.

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