Another British Invasion

Like most trends in popular culture, Carla and I are late to the ball on the Emmy-award-winning “Downton Abbey.”

Downton Abbey
The cast of Downton Abbey, now in its second season on PBS but gearing up for a third "series" on the BBC in September.

After many friends and co-workers insisted we join the cult of Downton, we reluctantly re-subscribed to Netflix last weekend so we could go back and watch the first season of the early 20th century British family drama now in its second season on PBS.

The first episode was pleasant enough to keep us watching, but it’s still hard for me to explain Downton mania.

The opening sequence of the first episode is beautiful cinematography. Sweeping shots of the interior of the house as the servants prepare for the day spoke volumes about the characters, the setting and even the plot. The story begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic, and its impact on the heirs to the Downton estate.

It was hard to follow the dialogue at first. We had to tune our ears to the frequency that allows Americans to understand English spoken with a British accent and idioms.

The characters were interesting, and the interplay between the hired help set apart from the wealthy family had all the intrigue of a back-stabbing corporate drama. Like most of these British dramas, which Carla particularly likes in movie form, the plot seemed to turn slowly around relatively minor points.

It reminded me of the 1992 Oscar-winning film “Howard’s End,” which involved a similar plot about who would inherit an English estate. Perhaps I was too shallow back then to appreciate the story, preferring instead movies with lasers, explosions and car chases. My chief impression of “Howard’s End” was that it was overly long and less-than-exciting. The most compelling action in the entire movie was [SPOILER ALERT] a bookcase falling on someone.

But what enamored the Academy, if not twenty-something male movie-goers, is also true of Downton: the writing is brilliant and the characters well-crafted.

Dowton Abbey's servants
Wouldn't you like a staff of servants to help you keep your "estate" in order?

The way American television develops characters lacks subtlety. Writers and directors feel a need to stick to stereotypes and one-dimensional portrayals to keep things simple. With Downton, every nod or wink or wince keeps you guessing about what is really going on with a character. Is Lord Crawley going to dismiss his war buddy, Mr. Bates, because of his disability? The dilemma plays out slowly and with nuance, holding your attention to the very last moment.

However, I must confess that Downton feeds one of my many annoying habits: poorly imitating British accents and phraseology.

As I cleaned up our plates of take-out Chinese, I couldn’t keep myself from saying in the clipped and precise manner of Carson, the head butler, “Is that all, your grace?”

I got a courtesy chuckle from Carla, but I could tell her patience with the Queen’s English wouldn’t last very long.

So I guess we’ll be visiting Downton Abbey regularly, joining the rest of you people who insisted we come along for the ride. With such a dearth of decent programming on the telly, this is a welcomed weekly retreat we can enjoy after putting the kids to bed.

I’ll try to keep a tight rein on Anglicising my vocabulary, and keep an eye out for falling bookcases.


Do you watch Downton Abbey? What do you love about it? You say you hate British dramas? What do you detest? Take a minute and share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.