Correction to This Article
This review indicated that PBS's broadcast of "Downton Abbey" was two hours shorter than the original version that aired in Britain last year. The British broadcast included commercials, which account for much of the time difference. The commercial-free PBS version was edited and repackaged for American audiences, including several minutes of cuts.

TV review: 'Downton Abbey' is rawther brilliant at keeping up appearances

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 8:16 PM

There are many tempting nooks and crannies in which to get lost in Downton Abbey - a sprawling, fictional, English country estate on the brink of early-20th-century change in PBS's imported miniseries "Downton Abbey," which begins a splendid four-week run Sunday night.

This is the kind of show for which you'll want to get a mild case of the flu. Prepare your Ikea fainting settee and the DVR; you'll need blankets, tea and shortbread cookies. Hours later, you'll still be speaking with the accent, until someone tells you to knock it off.

"Downton Abbey" is a flawlessly made, drolly addictive show that was a big hit in Britain last year (it has been renewed for a second season) and now it's here - with just about everything that British or American audiences could want in a mannered, Edwardian, "Upstairs/Downstairs"-style period piece, including a perfect performance from (of course) Maggie Smith, who plays the manipulative dowager countess of the estate.

Fans of such fare haven't been this well tended to since Robert Altman's 2001 film, "Gosford Park." In fact, the similarities are plain: "Downton Abbey" was created by Julian Fellowes, who wrote the screenplay for "Gosford Park."

But "Downton Abbey" is also crisper, more efficient and at times more melodramatic, as it delves into the lives of the Crawley family - who've occupied Downton Abbey for centuries - and its many servants. The series is naturally an exploration of class, but it's also a paean to a way of life that simply couldn't sustain itself, as everyone in the mansion begins to sense the coming end of a very long era.

It opens in April 1912 with the people at Downton Abbey doing everything they can to maintain the status quo, including white tie and tails at dinner every night. "Downton Abbey" immediately thrusts us into a realm where people know the difference between a valet and a footman, a housekeeper and a lady's maid. Everyone in the joint knows his or her place and the feeling is that you should, too.

The morning post brings distressing news that the Titanic has sunk, taking with it the only two male heirs to Downton Abbey - a cousin and his son. Here, we begin to learn the inflexible details of the estate's centuries-old "entail" agreement, which legally requires that the manor, the land, the village and the family fortunes may only be passed down to first-born males.

Over in Britain, some fuss has been made about the fact that "Downton Abbey" has been whittled down for its U.S. broadcast, from roughly eight hours to six. (Here, "Downton Abbey" will air 90-minute episodes for the next four Sundays.) On its journey across the pond, the series reportedly shed several scenes and dialogue about entails and inheritance law.

No matter. "Downton Abbey" moves along at a nice clip, and "Masterpiece Classic" (the PBS brand airing the show) has employed its secret weapon to help out: Laura Linney, the American actress, here as a sort of English-for-Dummies tutor, explaining the concept of entail to us dopey Yanks in about three sentences - 'nuff said. Bring out the tea.

Upstairs: The estate's magnanimous and sympathetic patriarch - Robert Crawley, the earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) - has no sons. He saved Downton once before from financial ruin in the late 19th century, when he married Cora (the excellent Elizabeth McGovern - where has she been hiding since the 1980s?), a wealthy American heiress who brought her fortune with her.

Robert and Cora have three grown daughters, the eldest of whom - the connivingly fickle and impossibly lovely Mary (Michelle Dockery) - was intended to marry one of the male cousins who perished on the Titanic. Now, the entail is in jeopardy.

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