Since Downton Abbey is about to premiere its second series in the U.K., I thought it was the proper time to look back at its first. At its premiere reports swirled that the British were going to cut many costume adaptations (it looks like that wasn’t completely accurate). So long as these continue, I see no reason to be disappointed with the Brits since this just proves that they still have some amazingly talented people bringing these productions together. 

The date is April 1912, the Titanic has just sunk and news of it travels quickly across British societies. The household of Downton Abbey is abuzz with the news. When it reaches the earl, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the question of whether or not anyone the family knows was aboard is posed. Before long, he learns that his cousins were indeed on the passenger list and being the heirs to his estate, the title and fortune is uncertain. Especially since the Earl’s three children are girls. 

Robert’s wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) brought the fortune to the abbey which leads her to form a tentative bond with her mother-in-law (Maggie Smith). Both agree, eldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) should inherit the fortune even if her gender disallows her the title. This inspires the women of Downton to look for a promising match between Mary and a visiting duke. Plans crumble when it becomes apparent the Duke had other motivations for visiting…

The sinking of the Titanic is much talked of “downstairs.” Coinciding with this is the arrival of a new valet, Bates (Brendon Coyle). Since a war injury left Bates slightly crippled, he cannot perform his duties as efficiently as the other men on staff, before long, he becomes a source of aggravation of the butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter). Bates presence causes even more friction when young footman, Thomas (Rob James-Collier) becomes jealous, assuming his temporary position as the Earl’s valet would become permanent. Despite it all, Bates finds a friend in the kind-hearted, Anna (JoAnne Frogatt), the head house maid. Meanwhile, Lady Mary’s romantic possibilities become more tangled when a distant cousin of Robert’s, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) is found to be the next in line to inherit Downton. His arrival causes a stir in the household when everyone realizes that the man not only holds an occupation but has no idea how to conduct himself among the wealth he is set to receive on Robert’s death.

BOOK REVIEW | Heiress by Susan May Warren

This household offers more than one interesting scenario and more than enough engaging characters to hold one’s interest for the entire hour-long seven episode span. It was pleasant to find just how much you adore every character, even those that aren’t meant to be as likable as others are intriguing – there is probably only about three regulars that are detestable and evil. Each time credits rolled, I found myself anxious to immediately pop the next disc in but held back at the idea that each passing hour was inching ever closer to an end, something that was dismal indeed. Many dramas have allowed servants and their “betters” to play just as equal a part in the stories, but I’d not seen it done quite as this one. Fellowes does a masterful job here and I enjoyed it tremendously - from the best Brittan has to offer.

One thing that did surprise me was how prevalent the downstairs staff became. Perhaps mistakenly, I naturally did assume that the wealthy Crawley’s and their circle would be at the forefront. Instead, writers allow us to get to know the people who ready the house for their employers, something that came alive on-screen very well. Anna and Bates were undoubtedly my two favorites while the poor klutzy kitchen maid, Daisy reminded me greatly of Minnie from Lark Rise to Candleford. To find myself so attached to Robert as a main character was interesting and a switch since generally speaking, it is normally the lady of the house who endears herself the most. Masters are often depicted as stern in nature and while they may not be cruel, it’s not a character that viewers find that likable. He and Cora’s marriage was written well, something all to often missing from these since it was rare to find marriages forged of love instead of convenience. I look forward to seeing the younger two Crawley daughters come into a larger role, since they would be interesting studies, if given the chance.
Recent BBC productions have had disappointing costume designs – many were recycled due to budget limitations. Here the magnificent costuming is nothing to sneeze at. All of them are gorgeous and almost always complimentary. The colors and fabrics are stunning, and the hats! Oh, the millinery in the series is just beautifully elegant. And the score is grand. Before anyone goes out to rent this (I cannot imagine many of you haven’t seen it), make sure to do your homework first, because it isn’t content-free. One odd thing about the series has Mary frantically awaking Anna, only to realize that her lover is dead; comically, the women drag him to his room where he’s discovered the next morning. (Who else thinks this likely is reflections of Fellowes award-winning work on Gosford Park?) Simple delights are many.

This couldn’t receive enough praise from small and large media outlets alike – from an enchanting blog, a paramount journal to a fun place celebrating these unrecognized dramas, this is worthy of every bit of praise. Recognizing so many familiar faces is amusing. Placing the faces where we'd seen them became a kind of game for my family. It’s a shame little things served to soil an otherwise intelligent script because in all other regards, this is marvelous. It did surprise me that while I am anxious to enter another chapter of this family’s life, I was “satisfied” with how series one resolved itself. Since I rather expected the news at the end to be the subject of a continuing series, I was fully prepared for the conclusion. Now I can only wish that the next installments will prove as enlightening as these were. The only dreadful thing about the final credits is the wait for the changes upcoming to the house of Crawley - and trust me, it has been agony.

What are you hoping to see resolved in series two? 

(Content intrudes in such a way that while “mild” - because of its length - does bear mentioning. There is a homosexual subplot in episode one. There is evidence of letters and one same-sex kiss. Another attempt at a similar relationship is rebuked. Mary’s honor is compromised and we understand she went through with it willingly.)