Occupying "Downton Abbey"

The British series chronicling early 20th Century class conflict amid rapidly changing times makes a timely return.

By Jere Hester
|  Friday, Jan 6, 2012  |  Updated 12:07 PM EDT
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Actors Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens are part of a stellar cast in "Downton Abbey."

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“Downton Abbey” is a long way in time, place – and in reality – from Zuccotti Park.

But a large part of the Edwardian-set British drama’s appeal, as it begins a second season on PBS Sunday, rests in its timely chronicling of simmering class conflicts that resound a century later.

The complicated and changing relationships between the One Percent and the 99 Percent in 1914 as the world heads to war add up to make us 100 percent stoked for the return of the series that made it cool again to watch (or admit watching) PBS.

The uneasy mix of old-time British repression and evolving mores fuel sexual tension galore – including a gossip-friendly scandal (a handsome young Turk who dies in the act with the lord of the manor's eldest daughter) that wouldn’t be all that out of place on "Dallas" – the old version or upcoming reboot. Even a purloined bottle of wine drives shocking high-stakes machinations among the servants that seem more akin to the corporate infighting on "Mad Men," a show set in a less distant era of social upheaval.

"Downton Abbey" is far more than another imported soap opera given a patina of class by British accents. Great writing led by creator Julian Fellowes and a stellar cast headed by Maggie Smith as the manor’s scheming matriarch helps make the arrival of Season 2 an event worthy of the kind of hoopla that used to greet new episodes of "The Sopranos."

The power struggles in "Downton Abbey" are subtler than in Tony Soprano's world, but no less compelling. The setting and dynamic harkens to "Upstairs, Downstairs," the early 1970s British series about the hired help and the wealthy family they serve. "Upstairs, Downstairs" elevated "Masterpiece Theatre" to a spot alongside "Sesame Street" as the franchises that largely have defined PSB over the last four-plus decades – fostering, somewhat unfairly, an image for the network as for the young or for the old.

As The New York Times recently pointed out, "Downton Abbey," which attracted nearly five million viewers a week in Season 1, skews younger than the usual audience what’s now known simply as “Masterpiece.” The number of women ages 25 to 54 who tune into "Masterpiece" is up 56 percent, thanks to "Downton Abbey." The episodes drew another 1 million viewers, 18 to 49, who streamed the show via Netflix or PBS.org, The Times noted.

There’s plenty – ranging from an attractive multi-generational cast to gripping, turmoil-stoked drama – to pull in a wide viewership.

The moral center of Downton Abbey’s rapidly shifting landscape is Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (an outstanding Hugh Bonneville), whose sense of duty and honor drives him to preserve an outmoded way of life – even at the expense of losing his sprawling estate to a male cousin, thanks to sexist conventions and a covenant that bar his three daughters as heirs and take away his American wife's fortunes.

The Earl, whose last name perhaps suggests he is slow to alter his ways, is endlessly kind, fair and protective of his staff – no, he doesn't offer health insurance, but he's quick to send the blustery cook to London for eye surgery. Some of the servants, particularly the older ones, share an interest in preserving the 20th Century remnants of a feudal caste system, if only because they know no other way.

But the world beyond the estate is changing – the battle for suffrage and violent political clashes draw the Earl’s progressive, if naïve, youngest daughter who seems smitten with the family’s socialist Irish chauffeur. Meanwhile, her two older sisters wage vicious battles over men, as they chafe in a society where their value is measured by the wealth of their suitors.

The romantic troubles extend to the staff, brimming with “Remains of the Day”-like largely unspoken longings. The most mysterious of the lot is Bates, a war veteran fighting to overcome a leg wound, psychic scars and a sense of honor that may be his undoing.

Technology also threatens to upend life in Downton Abbey. The series began with the unthinkable sinking of the Titanic, which killed two Grantham heirs and threw the inheritance scheme into chaos. The manor, during the course of the season, got electricity and even telephones (one for Crawley, one for his head butler). But it’s a relatively old-school telegram that brings the news setting up Season 2: the start of what will become World War I, with death wrought by horrific new forms of weaponry.

The dawn of battle seems destined to reveal some of the conflicts among the various social strata to be as petty as they are, while bringing larger ones to the surface.

We know from history where the British Empire is headed as class distinctions, old money and manor life begin to get uprooted. But combination of internal drama and external forces impacting characters from different walks treading the same deceivingly safe, bucolic land make us eager to occupy “Downton Abbey” for a second season. Check out a preview below:

Watch Downton Abbey I Wonder Preview on PBS. See more from Masterpiece.

 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.


 

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