By Sarah JostI am a bit late to the Downton Abbey party. The British drama is about to enter its third season and I’m just barely digging into season one. I had been hearing, and not knowing whether to believe, the award show hype about Downton for quite some time when I arrived at my second couchsurfing stop in New Zealand. We were greeted by our gregarious and generous hosts at the entrance to their self-sustaining eco-property in the rolling green hills of the Bay of Plenty. They gave us a tour of their homemade canned food and wine cellar before leading us to their living room where we discussed everything from traveling to politics to farming over glasses of homemade rose wine.
Our hosts were polite, intelligent, and extremely attentive, constantly offering to top up our drinks or snack plates. Being such consummate hosts, it came as a complete surprise when, at promptly nine o’clock, they abruptly interrupted the conversation. ‘We would never normally do this, but Downton Abbey is about to start, and we can’t miss it.’
It was a bit like starting a book on the tenth chapter. I had no backstory for the characters and no clue what the main plot points were. Still, it was incredibly enjoyable, its merit confirmed by the frequent gasps, belly laughs, and expletives uttered by our hosts.
Watching it now from the beginning, it is no surprise that I felt on the outside of a very large inside joke during my first viewing. The plot is intricate, the characters complex, and the dialogue full of blink-and-you-miss-them references and innuendoes. It is a fascinating look at the beginning of the 20th century, expertly brought to life by principal writer Julian Fellows and the cast’s sincere, nuanced performances.
I was more than disappointed to learn that the show is edited for an American audience on PBS, cutting the season down by two hours, simplifying the inheritance storyline, and even reordering some scenes to move the plot along more quickly. Gratefully, I am watching the British version, but am both offended that PBS feels such measures necessary and devastated that they might be right.
Downton Abbey is smart, subtle, and doesn’t hold your hand, but that doesn’t mean that it’s something to be feared. British television simply never insults its viewers intelligence, and Downton is no different. Tune in to see exceptional performances from the entire cast, though Dame Maggie Smith undoubtedly deserves special recognition for being nothing short of a god, and exceptional writing like the following exchanges from the first episode of season one:
Lady Edith Crawley to her sister regarding a potential suitor: So he slipped the hook.
Lady Mary Crawley in reply: At least I’m not fishing with no bait.
Dowager Countess to her son Lord Grantham: Don’t you care about Downton?
Lord Grantham: What do you think? I’ve given my life to Downton. I was born here and I hope to die here. I claim no career beyond the nurture of this house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child. Do I care about it? Yes, I do care!