By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2011; C01
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.
Enter a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stephens), a Manchester attorney who lives with his widowed mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton). Insisting on tradition and the letter of the law, the Earl brings Matthew and Isobel to Downton Abbey to explore whether the young man is up to the task of inheriting the estate, with its myriad management issues.
The fact that Matthew works for a living - and that his late father was a doctor - displeases members of the family, especially the dowager, and Smith relishes every line she's given. ("What is a 'weekend'?" the dowager asks, with upper-crust disdain.)
Though met with a wagonload of NOCD - "Not our class, dear" - Matthew and his mother boldly stride into Downton, with every last fork and cuff link and opera-length glove. It's especially delicious to watch Isobel get under the dowager's skin and upend some of Downton's long-held conventions.
Everyone in the house hopes handsome, blue-eyed cousin Matthew will take an interest in Lady Mary, which would be the tidiest solution. But in that "Pride and Prejudice" way that these sorts of characters tend to show repulsion when they feel attraction, Matthew and Mary can't stand each other, even as the chemistry between them suggests otherwise.
More important, can Matthew find a way to love Downton Abbey - enough to rule it?
As Robert and Matthew stroll across Downton's vast, lush grounds, the Earl turns to the young man and says: "You do not love the place yet."
"Well," Matthew stammers, "Obviously, it's -"
"No, you don't love it," the Earl declares. "You see a million bricks that may crumble, a thousand gutters and pipes that may block and leak, and stone that will crack in the frost."
"But you don't?" Matthew wonders.
"I see my life's work," the Earl says.
Most of "Downton Abbey" takes place in the springs and summers of 1912 to 1914, concluding with the start of World War I and the arrival of (egad!) an estate telephone. The mansion is played by Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, built in 1842 on an estate occupied by Carnavon family since the "Domesday Book" was penned. If nothing else, "Downton Abbey" is finely crafted lifestyle porn for Anglophiles. (And I think you know who you are.)
For all its many plot lines and revelations (a dead body in someone's bed sets off a dozen little melodramas), for all its worries about love and marriage and tiny slights delivered in dinner conversations, "Downton Abbey" is a massive ode to the highest form of real-estate management and upkeep.
Which, naturally, brings us to the . . .
Downstairs: Here, among the butler, housekeeper, cook and many levels of maids and footmen and chauffeurs, "Downton Abbey" gets busy with the work of discovering its most resonant plots and performances. Yet it doesn't force viewers to choose whether the Crawleys, upstairs, are more interesting to watch than the help.
Rather, "Downton Abbey" skillfully enmeshes its classes, portraying a household in which the Crawleys and their servants live in sheltered states of co-dependence, shielded from the rest of the world. One side is forever in the hallway overhearing the remarks made on the other side of a door, causing endless anguish about the future - both personal and institutional.
From the stoic devotion of the head butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) to the bitter and snakey scheming of Lady Grantham's maid and the ambitious first footman (Siobhan Finneran and Rob James-Collier), "Downton Abbey" is intent on chronicling the last days of a time when the balance of power was never in question.
The series asks us to mourn this loss of class distinctions while celebrating its demise as necessary to modern social evolution. This comes through especially clear when a young housemaid (Rose Leslie) purchases and secretly teaches herself how to use a newfangled typewriter, hoping to get work as a secretary and leave behind the servile life to which she's been brought up to aspire.
In the end, "Downton Abbey" is a fully textured primer for those Yanks readying themselves to surrender fully to the irritating, essentially pointless royal wedding mania wave headed our way. The upstairs/downstairs dilemma can trigger a powerful ambivalence, especially in Americans, who seldom acknowledge - and perhaps resent - the lingering separation anxiety from the Old World and its old ways. "Downton Abbey" will transfix viewers with a story, a feeling, a lifestyle that has proved to have limitless appeal.
Downton Abbey (90 minutes) begins Sunday at 9 p.m. on MPT and at 8:58 p.m. on WETA.