'Downton Abbey' Delves Into Brewing Class Conflict In World War I

By: Ed Siegel

Last season was supposed to mark the return of “Upstairs, Downstairs” to PBS’s “Masterpiece.” But it was another series about aristocrats and servants in the early 19th century that not only captured the imagination of viewers, but got almost universally positive reviews.

Downton Abbey” went on to win six Emmy Awards, including best mini-series or movie and returns this Sunday night for a second season. Like “Upstairs, Downstairs,” the action see-saws between the aristocratic family, headed by Lord Grantham, including the Jane Austen-like storyline of his three daughters being unable to inherit the estate, and the servants’ equally compelling issues.

But while “Upstairs, Downstairs” was more about the stratification of classes and how different the aristocrats were from everyone else, “Downton Abbey,” particularly these new episodes set during World War I, is about the mixing of the classes and the confrontations that come from that crossover. And it deals with issues that are closer to those we deal with today – such as the morality of war and the power of the media.

"It’s riveting drama, there’s a ton of excellent writing and the acting is out of this world."

Ed Siegel, Here & Now critic at large

Lord Grantham even thinks that he and his butler, Bates, are friends and is livid when Bates tell him he has to leave. In fact, Bates is being blackmailed by his ex-wife, who’s threatened to spill the beans about Bates’s new love, Anna. She helped cover up the death of a Turkish diplomat who expired in the bed of Mary, Lord Grantham’s eldest daughter.

Bates’s sense of loyalty and betrayal are symbolic of why the series resonates so much with contemporary audiences. We live in an age of hyper-ironic humor, marriages that end at the first sign of trouble, and moral ambiguity everywhere – just turn to HBO or Showtime at 9 for lovable serial killers and such. “Downton Abbey” features characters who strive with every bone in their body to do the right thing. And those who don’t are unmistakable villains. Which is a bit of a problem here.

There’s almost a cartoonish quality to Mrs. Bates as well as O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s maid, and Thomas, the scheming footman. Also, the first series did a wonderful job of walking the line between drama and melodrama, but, in season two, Julian Fellowes, the writer, lets the relationships, particularly in some of the later episodes, veer too far into soap opera.

Chief among them are the relationship of Matthew and Mary who are engaged to others, even though it’s obvious they still love each other. He’s back from World War I with severe leg wounds — and equally severe self-pity.

Matthew puts his feelings for Mary aside and stays engaged to his fiancé. Mary gets engaged to Richard Carlisle a super-villain, a tabloid mogul who makes Rupert Murdoch look like a nice guy.
The other two Grantham sisters also fall for men far beneath them.

Still, it’s riveting drama, there’s a ton of excellent writing and the acting is out of this world, from Maggie Smith as the wonderful dowager countess to Hugh Bonneville and Brendan Coyle as the lord and butler. The one exception, though, is Elizabeth McGovern, an American-born actress who plays Lord Grantham’s American-born wife and she is completely overshadowed by all the Brits.

“Masterpiece” didn’t send out the finale of the series, but I did take a peek and the British critics liked it quite a bit so here’s hoping that all ends well in Season Two – and there will, apparently be a Season Three. It’s been green-lit by ITV in England.

This program aired on January 5, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.


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