The perfect series for any occasion.
Streaming on Amazon Prime | 2011–2016 | TV-14 | six seasons
Genre: "English country estate drama" (according to original British network ITV)
Why We Watched: For as long as I can remember, PBS has been my favorite network. I grew up on Reading Rainbow and Wishbone. And I once sat on hold with Comcast for thirty minutes while they attempted to restore an accidentally deleted recording of Antiques Roadshow. So yes, I was tuned in on January 9, 2011, when Downton Abbey aired on Masterpiece Theater, the network's long-running miniseries anthology. The rest, as they say, is history!
You Might Also Like: This series paved the way for other multi-season narratives to occupy Masterpiece's Sunday night time slot. Period dramas Poldark, Victoria, and my personal favorite Grantchester about a clergyman-turned-detective can all trace their lineage back to the breakout success of Downton Abbey.
When Downton first aired on PBS in 2011, I had to park myself in front of the screen every Sunday night. And if I wanted to re-watch episodes—which I obviously did—I had to walk uphill both ways to Vision Video. Although I loved my college town's video rental store, I did not love competing for a television series. Seasons always came on multiple DVDs, and if discs one and three were in stock but disc two was already checked out ... the horror! But that was then, and this is now. In preparation for the film, which released earlier this week, you can watch every episode from the comfort of your own couch/bed/bus. In the words of the Dowager Countess (played by the inimitable Maggie Smith), “Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H. G. Wells novel!”
This series is a lavish prewar costume drama that follows an aristocratic family and their domestic servants at a countryside estate in Yorkshire, England. Although we follow all of the Crawley's throughout the series, eldest daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) becomes our primary protagonist, as her relationships with family and potential suitors fuel most of the drama. Her father Lord Robert (Hugh Bonneville) is the head of the estate, which has been in the family for centuries. He married an American heiress Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), whose dowry saved Downton from financial ruin. But! Because the estate is "entailed" and the two had daughters including Mary and her sisters Edith (Laura Carmichael) or Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), Downton will go to the closest male relative: distant cousin Matthew (Dan Stevens). And the Dowager Countess is involved in it all.
While upstairs is consumed with the survival of the estate and potential marriages of the three Crawley daughters, there's just as much drama brewing downstairs. (Side Note: Creator Julian Fellowes was inspired by the 1970s series Upstairs, Downstairs.) Lady's maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) falls for the new valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), whose past is mysterious and potentially shady. Thomas (Robert James-Collier) wants Bates's job and is willing to do anything for it, but he has his own secrets he needs to keep. Irish chauffeur Tom (Allen Leech) finds his allegiances divided when his country rebels against English rule. And head butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) have to keep everyone in order.
The series takes place over the course of decades through the upheaval of the early twentieth century. From the sinking of the Titanic to Spanish influenza, Ireland's declaration of independence, World War I, and the Teapot Dome Scandal, Downton serves as an entertaining lesson in history. The set and costumes are lush, with brocades of fabric and flamboyant hats. The oddness of British aristocratic customs, from dressing for dinner to valets and lady's maids, is fascinating, especially as an American viewer. Watching Downton Abbey is like taking the TARDIS back in time to a beautiful world about to crumble. This is especially true of a re-watch. But even though it's heartbreaking to lose some of our favorite characters throughout, newcomers like Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) and Rose (Lily James) instill new life in the last seasons. From episode one to fifty-two, I love every minute!
By all accounts, the success of Downton Abbey took PBS entirely by surprise—it was the network's most-viewed drama in 45 years! It won more Emmy's than any other non-Hollywood show ever had. And at its peak, Downton had 30% of viewers during the 9 p.m. Sunday slot at the same time that Game of Thrones and Mad Men were airing on HBO and AMC. Honestly, I don't think it's possible to oversell the historic significance of the series, but I'll do it anyway: You have Downton Abbey to thank for funding season two of Sherlock (on Netflix), which means you basically have Downton Abbey to thank for more Benedict Cumberbatch.
I could go on and on, but I'll stop myself. I've got tickets to see the movie tonight, so @ me (@TheLizCW) if you want to spill more tea!
Lady Elizabeth Crawley
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