NPR : Fresh Air

'Downton' Returns With Aristocratic Class And Clash

Play associated audio

Downton Abbey, the drama series about the residents and servants at a grand estate in early 20th-century England, has done for PBS what the commercial broadcast networks couldn't achieve last year. It generated a hit show — one with an audience that increased over its run and left fans hungry for more. And that's a lot of hunger because when the second season was televised here in the states, it averaged 7 million viewers, more than most TV shows on any network, cable or broadcast. In fact, it has the largest audience in the history of Masterpiece, a PBS franchise that goes back more than 40 years. And the secret to the success of Downton Abbey can be found in the early history of Masterpiece Theatre.

In 1974, Masterpiece Theatre imported the first installment of Upstairs, Downstairs, which caught on in America just as Downton has now — and with a very similar story. The miniseries showed life, in a proper upper-class British household, from the points of view of both the ruling class — the upstairs — and the servant class — the downstairs. Back then, in an era before videocassette recorders, fans held Upstairs, Downstairs viewing parties, and waited impatiently for each installment. With Downton, fans in the U.S. either caught it on PBS, or gobbled it up afterward on DVD or downloaded it — but the effect is the same. And so is the quality.

Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of Downton Abbey, has done a great job making a very compelling period soap opera. The third season, which starts Sunday, is his best work yet. The first two seasons spent a lot of time dealing with world events outside the household, from the sinking of the Titanic to World War I. Season 3, set at the start of the 1920s, focuses almost exclusively on events within the Downton estate itself — and as far as plots and intrigue go, that's plenty.

As the season begins, one story line concerns the postwar economy and how Robert Crawley, who owns the estate, may have to sell it. Out of desperation, Cora, his American wife, sends for her wealthy mother to visit, in hopes that the Crawley women can persuade her to finance their lavish lifestyle. The mother, Martha, is played by new cast member Shirley MacLaine, who's excellent. She doesn't steal the show — she can't, not with Maggie Smith already dominating every scene she's in as Cora's mother-in-law, the acerbic, sarcastic Dowager Countess — but MacLaine fits in perfectly.

In one scene, the Dowager Countess comments about Cora's brother, when what she really wants to do is charm Martha into sharing her fortune. It's one of many scenes in Downton Abbey that has two layers. There's the veneer of the social graces, the ritualistic politeness of it all. And, beneath that shiny surface, there's what's really going on: the desperation, the intrigue, the jealousies and obsessions and secrets. Every character in Downton Abbey, from the lowliest cook's maid to the earl of the estate, is a delight to spend time with. Even the occasional exterior shots of the estate itself are breathtakingly beautiful, whether shown in bright sunlight, moody moonlight or misty rain. The building is so gorgeous, inside and out, it's understandable why those who live and work there want to cling to it — whatever their station.

And for Downton Abbey, the TV series, the station, in America, is PBS. While American cable TV gives us the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo as royalty, Masterpiece Classic has generated a hit by treating us to a touch of class.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

WAMU 88.5

Art Beat With Lauren Landau, Aug. 4, 2015

You can see two exhibits and rub elbows with the artists behind the work.
NPR

Judge Strikes Down Idaho 'Ag-Gag' Law, Raising Questions For Other States

A judge ruled Monday that an Idaho law criminalizing undercover investigations of farms is unconstitutional. Seven states have similar laws, but legal experts say they may not stand much longer.
NPR

Privacy Advocates To Senate Cyber Security Bill

The Senate is considering a bill to make it easier for businesses and the government to share data about cyber threats. Proponents say it would enhance security; opponents call it surveillance.
NPR

Sexist Reactions To An Ad Spark #ILookLikeAnEngineer Campaign

After being surprised by online responses to her appearance in a recruiting ad, engineer Isis Wenger wanted to see if anyone else felt like they didn't fit a "cookie-cutter mold."

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.