Sat
Feb 5 2011 7:00pm

Downton Abbey, Episode 1: What Is A Weekend?

Downton Abbey: Our latest English costume drama import. The best of post-Edwardian angst, feisty dowager-countesses, and manor-house porn. Like any good Anglophile, I settled down with my glass of port and my remote control and wallowed.

Downton Abbey Elizabeth McGovern as Countess Cora

Perhaps a little background. The Earl of Grantham, having married an American heiress to shore up the failing fortunes of his estate, Downton Abbey, and having betrothed his eldest daughter to the eldest son of his heir in order to keep the estate in the family, has his plans dashed when both the heir and his son (the daughter's betrothed) are onboard the Titanic (never a good sign). We begin with the news that the heirs are drowned and that some distant cousin whom no one knows is the new heir. And there's a bit of kerfuffle about entail, the legal machinations that ensure a particular line of inheritance—but more about that later (maybe).

Well—here's a good start: Hugh Bonneville as the earl. Maybe you have to be a costume drama aficionado to recognize Hugh (and he just as often plays the amiable dolt, such as Mr. Rushworth in Patricia Rozema's travesty of Mansfield Park or the Prince Regent in BBC's Beau Brummell ) as the hero—but oooh! Hugh! (maybe it's just me).

Hugh Bonneville in Downton Abbey

Elizabeth McGovern is Lady Grantham, the American wife. While she's not a big favorite of mine, she does seem to find her way into a lot of not-American mini-series. I still haven't quite recovered from her casting as Marguerite Blakeny in the 1999 Scarlet Pimpernel. But I like her character here and her relationship with the earl. As a longtime fan of Historical Romance, it's kind of refreshing to find parents who are kind, who seem to like each other, and who are not overbearing.

But lest you think Downton Abbey is short on overbearing, let me reassure you that we have the estimable Maggie Smith as the dowager countess (the earl's mother). Now, here's a woman who wrote the book on playing overbearing. She doesn't let us down, sweeping into the house, trying to dominate the current countess (whom it is obvious she can just barely tolerate), insisting that her son break the entail which passes the estate onto the distant cousin, trying to get the eldest daughter married off to someone who will be able to support the family. Being, in other words, the quintessential Maggie Smith character.

Mary, the eldest of three daughters, had been engaged to the drowned heir. Unfortunately, she's more concerned with the fact that she'll have to wear black than the fact that her fiancé is dead. So far, I'm finding it pretty difficult to like Mary. She does, however, give us entrée to some potentially interesting side stories.

Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

After the Titanic sinks, the Duke of Crowborough is introduced as a potential husband for Mary (until he learns that she will not inherit the estate). But what makes the duke interesting is an illicit relationship with someone belowstairs (shall I tell you about it?). At the end of the first episode, one of the sisters sneaks a peek at a letter to Mary signed Evelyn. A love letter? We don't know yet. A woman? A man? We don't know that, either. Stay tuned.

Finally, we meet the new heir: a middle class lawyer from Manchester, played by the adorable Dan Stevens who, unfortunately, manages to be not-so-adorable at the moment we meet him. He has no idea how to behave as or with the aristocracy and apparently has not much intention of learning. When he tells the earl, who has brought him to Downton to help him learn how to manage the estate, that he intends to continue to work as a lawyer and will only be available weekends, the wonderful Maggie Smith asks, “What is a weekend?”

This is probably my favorite line in the entire 90 minutes. It is, in four words, the essential divide between the two families.

Highclere Castle in Downton Abbey

I must admit that my favorite character so far in Downton Abbey is Downton Abbey, ably played by Highclere Castle. So far, it has not put a step wrong.


Myretta Robens, The Republic of Pemberley

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2 comments
Danialah
1. Danialah
I like your views on Lady Mary I didn't like Mary to begin with in the series but began to think that can be nice but can get caught up in her sister rivarly with Edith. I would like to know what you think and would also like to thankyou for putting your views on Downton Abey on the internet because i am doing an assessment on Downton Abbey for media studies and have to create a blog and your views are very helpful so once again thankyou.
Danialah
2. Danialah
I like your views on Lady Mary I didn't like Mary to begin with in the series but began to think that can be nice but can get caught up in her sister rivarly with Edith. I would like to know what you think and would also like to thankyou for putting your views on Downton Abey on the internet because i am doing an assessment on Downton Abbey for media studies and have to create a blog and your views are very helpful so once again thankyou.
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