It’s True: We Are All Exactly Like Characters in Downton Abbey

I wanted to write a post about something else, but I’ve sort of got sidetracked catching up with this show (from the beginning). Just two days and I’m almost caught up with the current US schedule, but the first episode I ever saw was the Christmas special on Christmas Day. The show devotees at work thought I was winding them up, until they twigged that I had, of course, been in England at the time (where, for once, We aired a show before They did).

Being the watercooler talk of two middle-aged, Edwardian-loving adoranerds, I had to get in on this because they kept using the show to poke a little fun at my accent. Since I hadn’t seen The Fighter and didn’t really remember much about Mystic River (other than grey-tinting a camera lens makes things look gritty and Sean Penn still overacts when he’s not overacting gay or mentally ill), I couldn’t exact a vice-versa, and thought that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Revelling in my Englishness and all the stereotypes it entailed was going to be easier and much more fun with this show infecting everyone, but I had no idea that it was the darling of American television. I knew it had won a ton of awards, but niche shows like Boardwalk Empire (and every other HBO show that basically pumps sex where Michael Bay would insert an exploding car) had done the same, so I was just expecting this to be one of those awesome shows that no-one really watched.

One of my coworkers kept telling me I was definitely Lady Mary, if I had to be one of the characters. I smiled and said I’d watch it and see. But she’s a stubborn, coquettish, vain, spoiled, snobbish brunette who’s pressured by her parents and…oh. Never mind.

Lady Mary

British or not, there’s enough characters to go around for everyone to identify with, so I needn’t make a joke of playing up the Englishness for an American workplace when the show is good enough to watch on its own merit. I respect good storytelling, but more so, well-rounded characters with conflict, motivations, virtues and failings. I could tell that many of the veteran actors had theatre backgrounds and/or were classically-trained (which tends to be the case with even the latest crop of Brit actors today), because, despite the proper, stiff-upper-lip Britishness (either from stoic servitude or stoic nobility), it was necessary to have a group of actors with expressive faces fit for a stage.

The show is expensive, and looks it. Reading that each episode cost just over £1 million to produce, I wasn’t surprised. Reading that the show was created by the same man responsible for Gosford Park and The Importance of Being Earnest, I wasn’t surprised either. Creator Julian Fellowes seems to have a knack for writing about upper-class Edwardian estates and the isolated, mini-cities they become, and, much like a shop owner who’s on-site running the store every day, Fellowes has written every single episode so far. Unfortunately, he’s also responsible for The Tourist. But he’s been in a few Bond films, so we can just blame it on the fact that they didn’t originally get Charlize Theron for the lead.

Like any period drama, it’s easy to fall for the witty dialogue, the gorgeous costumes/sets, the sheer number of characters with which to occupy yourself and the dramatic irony of impending war. Most dramas of this sort tend to opt for the oft-tread territory of WWII (or, in the case of Americans, Vietnam…or their version of WWII for a pick-me-up from what actually happened). Even in school, for my History GCSE, I still didn’t really learn anything about WWI. Tons on WWII and even a big chunk of the curriculum on Vietnam.

I promised I wouldn’t watch ahead (even though the UK has already shown the post-second series Special), but the episodes have been stitched together in this weird Frankenstein way on PBS Masterpiece Theatre, so it’s hard to reference the number of episodes per series (people here think Series 1 had 4 episodes, when Wikipedia and ITV state 7).

Every showing is also preceded by a nauseatingly self-serving, smug, movie-trailer/awards-show-type introduction from the usually brilliant Laura Linney (why?), so I’d rather buy the DVD or watch it when I’m back in England. Or, if I do watch it here, I can distract myself from the pre-show presentation by preparing a drinking game for episodes I’ve watched already, or take a quiz or two about which character I’d be. Unsurprisingly, I got Mary for one, and the viciously witty Dowager Countess for the other, who has all the best lines.

Cora: Things are different in America. Dowager Countess: I know. They live in wigwams.

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