Anyone who’s been in the same room with me as I watch “Downton Abbey” inevitably emerges an hour later with ringing ears and unpleasant memories of prolonged squealing and hyperventilating.
And this is coming from a girl who can unflinchingly take in both onscreen violence and heartrending drama. Julian Fellowes‘ Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning PBS series, now in its second season, is well-written and well-acted enough to provoke a vocal reaction from the most stoic of viewers.
“Downton,” part frothy soap opera and part period piece, examines the lives of a pre-World War I aristocratic family and the servants who tend to them. Headed by the Earl and Countess of Grantham, and indirectly by the dowager countess (played by an incandescent Dame Maggie Smith), the Crawleys navigate a changing social and political landscape while trying to procure an heir to their estate. As to be expected, along the way there’s infighting, scheming, matchmaking, lots of sparkly Edwardian frocks and plenty of illicit romances.
The central relationship between “damaged goods” Lady Mary Crawley and heir presumptive to the earldom Matthew Crawley contributes most to my alternating pain and elation. I’m sure 4.2 million “Downton” fans (and that’s just in the United States) yell at their respective screens with me whenever Mary and Matthew’s eyes meet across the dining room table or during a hunting party and they don’t tell each other how they feel. Of course this tension makes for addictive TV when their relationship veers from enemies, to nearly engaged, to awkward friends, and finally, to engaged to other people. But Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens’ acting elevates the formulaic plot line so it’s particularly agonizing when two characters, so obviously perfect for each other, are ready to be married-just not, alas, to each other.
The Crawleys are just like us but with titles, an enormous country house and an equally gigantic fortune. They are people trying to find love (see Mary and Matthew) and trying to figure out how to adjust to a world with ever-changing conventions. This intersection of the relatable and fantastical satiates the common television-watcher’s appetite: with gossipy, snarky dialogue, sweeping shots of rural England, an attractive cast in gorgeous costumes and most of all, a satisfying love story. With “Downton,” I’ll hopefully (see Mary and Matthew, again) get all that plus an entertaining history lesson and a vaguely sociological study of “upstairs, downstairs” interactions.
“What is a weekend?” may be a common utterance at Northwestern, but trust me-a Sunday night with “Downton Abbey” is time indisputably well spent.