Downton Abbey

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TV Series Review

Downton Abbey's biggest star—and I do mean its biggest—never says a word.

To say it's a mansion almost doesn't do it justice. No, this place is a palace—filled with priceless art and unmatched craftsmanship and who knows how many bedrooms and gardens and rolling acres. "I suppose if you know how many rooms you've got, you haven't got a very big house," says the current real-life owner of Highclere Castle, otherwise known as Downton Abbey. The estate seems big enough to require its own time zone, and you have to wonder whether the house itself could use multiple postal codes.

Little surprise, then, that this beautiful edifice is a bit of a diva.

Yes, she's gorgeous. Yes, she's charming and stately and all of that. But in this high-gloss British ITV drama (re-aired on PBS in the United States), she's incredibly high maintenance too. And the fictional Crawley family, which has owned Downton for centuries, is exhausted from keeping the old belle up to snuff.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham and the current (early 20th century) co-master of Downton (more on his shared role in a minute), will do almost anything to keep the estate in the family, of course. But it's not an easy task, heating a place that big—not to mention paying salaries for its phalanx of servants. And while his wife's fortune (she's the daughter of an American tycoon) helps pay the bills for a bit, Robert knows that big, aristocratic houses like his are growing ever more rare.

Of late, the blue-blooded, drenched-in-tradition lord must share power with (gasp) a woman—and not just any woman. His headstrong daughter, Mary, who now co-owns the estate after her own husband's untimely death. (It's complicated.) And while daddy and daughter love each other very much, each has quite a different idea of how to fund and run the grande dame.

His younger daughter, Edith, isn't much help—distracted as she is by her own illegitimate (and secret) daughter, currently raised by a nearby village family. Tom, his estate manager, does what he can—but he's been known to have some radical ideas himself. And let's not even begin to discuss Robert's feisty mother, Violet, the estate's Dowager Countess, who's almost as formidable as the house itself.

Robert's monetary trials and familial troubles are nothing compared to the drama downstairs, where scullery maids sulk and footmen scheme and conflict is almost as bountiful as freshly churned butter. Scandal, mayhem and even a whiff of murder can rise from Downton's staid depths. Here in the servants' quarters, title and class are as firmly set as they are in Downton's parlors and dining rooms—and butler Mr. Carson and housekeeper Mrs. Hughes rule the house with unshaking propriety.

But even a half-century before Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin'. Old walls of decorum are crumbling. Class distinctions are falling. And everyone in Downton Abbey must learn to adjust with the times—or be crushed by them.

Downton Abbey is a sprawling, soapy epic of a story—beginning in 1912, trundling through World War I and now in the '20s. As such, it feels a bit like another acclaimed period series, AMC's Mad Men. Both are preoccupied with change—the promise it brings and the casualties it leaves behind. But instead of focusing on the more salacious societal earthquakes of the 1960s, Downton turns its attention to the more outwardly genteel (but no less profound) changes that took place in post-Edwardian England, from universal suffrage to class friction to the fall of an age-old aristocratic system in favor of a more egalitarian world.

As for incremental sexual change (forget about calling it a revolution yet), Downton's characters may sometimes find themselves locked in something other than holy matrimony, but carnal contact outside wedlock is still deeply scandalous, not standard procedure. And while wealth and class are important, the virtues of love and family feel even more so. That does not, however, mean the screen is clear in this category. Paramours of the Crawley daughters rarely keep their hands to themselves—nor are they asked to. A rape has been depicted, as have homosexual attraction and actions.

Those depictions come nowhere near the content concerns that so often muddle the likes of Mad Men, though. We live in an age when some of the "best" television shows are also its worst. But warts and all, as is the British way, the much lauded and wildly popular Downton Abbey seems determined to break through at least parts of that trend with staid aplomb.

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Episode Reviews

Downton-Abbey: 1-18-2015
Downton-Abbey: 1-12-2014
Downton-Abbey: 1-5-2014
Downton-Abbey: 1-6-2013
Downton-Abbey: 1-22-2012
Downton-Abbey: 10-31-2010

Credits

Rating

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Genre

Drama

Author

Cast

Hugh Bonneville as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley; Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Crawley; Jim Carter as Mr. Carson; Brendan Coyle as John Bates; Siobhan Finneran as Sarah; Joanne Froggatt as Anna; Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow; Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes; Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham; Sophie McShera as Daisy Mason; Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore; Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham; Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley; Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley; Jessica Brown Findlay as Lady Sybil Crawley; Allen Leech as Tom Branson; Lily James as Lady Rose; Cara Theobold as Ivy; Ed Speleers as Jimmy; Matt Milne as Alfred; Thomas Howes as William Mason; Kevin Doyle as Molesley; Raquel Cassidy as Baxter; Tom Cullen as Anthony Gillingham

Director

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Network

PBS

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Reviewer

Paul Asay Paul AsaySteven Isaac Steven Isaac