Why PBS Masterpiece Never Fails to Deliver

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There is literally nothing I love more than to watch actors in full period regalia amidst the greenest, lushest English countryside, arguing about entailment and alliances and status.  Literally nothing. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not. Which is why I love Masterpiece on PBS. When it comes to a good period piece, Masterpiece always has me covered, and the newest installment, Downton Abbey, is no disappointment. The country scenes are so green and the characters so British it’s almost painful. Masterpiece, which airs on Sunday nights, has already run three of the four episodes, but if you’ve missed them they are available online.

Downton is Abbey is written by Julian Fellows of Gosford Park fame. Coincidentally, the show is more or less  similar to the movie in television format (without the super hunky Clive Owen), but never fear, it’s just as good if not better than the movie.  We begin in 1912 with the very recent news of the sinking of the Titanic.  The Crawley Family seems to have the same problems an inordinate number of families had at the time: Too many girls, not enough heirs.  Since the heir to the estate was on the Titanic and pronounced dead, the family is in an uproar about who will inherit.  There is an immediate dichotomy between old and new generations.  On one side, the family is prepared to allow the estate to go to a perfect stranger as good, obedient English families are supposed to do.  On the other, the family is prepared to bring in the lawyers and fight it out in court.

At the turn of the century, English values are about to hit a growth spurt in a very painful way.  First, there will be WWI which will literally turn the social system upside down. Then there will be women’s liberation and (gasp) jazz and all the other social advancements of the 20th century.  The interesting thing about the show is the ambivalence of the older characters to the extinction of their way of life.  For example, when the matriarch of the family, the amazing Dame Maggie Smith, is presented with the modern working man, she wonders, baffled, “what is a weekend?” I had to stop and think about that. How could a person not possibly know what a weekend is? How far removed from the working class do you have to be to have a completely different conceptualization of time? It was funny, but also startling.

Unfortunately for the family, the new heir is a very scandalous third cousin.  He is quite inappropriately a working man, a lawyer, and he is brought out to the estate to be taught some manners.  He refuses to use the servants, he does not hunt, and he will not take part in the running of the estate. He personifies the change in English lifestyle, the out with the old and in with the new. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also super handsome.

However, the Crawley Family isn’t quite finished yet, and their adherence to the old system is no more evident than in the servants.  The show is a upstairs/downstairs format with a plot line in the main family and another in the family of servants and valets who keep their lives running.  I don’t know much about servants and their employers in the early 1900s, but one of the things I love about the show is that not only are the staff a motley family in themselves, they also embrace the Crawleys as their family. They are confidants and support and friends, and the line between master and servant is blurred and faded, though really bad behavior will get them put in their place.

The thread of modernity also runs through the kitchens and servants living quarters, with one maid looking for work as a typist. With administrative work, a new breed of woman will be born: One who does not clean and cook and serve, but who is instead a mistress of her own career. When the butler finds the girl’s typewriter, its presence is sinister and frightening and the family (servants and Crawleys alike) cannot even begin to fathom why a girl would want to leave her position as a housemaid for the modern world.

Thus far romance in the series has been minimal. The family is struggling to find a husband for the eldest daughter to save them from the predicament of the scandalous heir. Unfortunately, the eldest daughter, while incredibly beautiful, is a total pain in the arse and about as emotionally mature as a 6th grader.  We’ll have to see how the storyline progresses with her suitors. There are two other sisters who are better candidates for romance; they not only posses more likable personalities, but are more sympathetic overall. As with all good British period pieces, there is no shortage of male eye candy. They walk about in their riding boots and tuxedos, looking both beautiful and masculine. Every new man is more handsome than the last. I obviously live in the wrong time period.

Downton Abbey will be filming a second season spring of this year. Because it is a British program, it will probably be a while before it hits the states, but I’m already salivating for it. There is just one episode left and, if you haven’t watched this incredible show, I hope you’ll watch it online or in re-broadcasts.

- Jacqueline AAR

23 thoughts on “Why PBS Masterpiece Never Fails to Deliver

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  5. I believe that the 2nd season is to start filming shortly. Perhaps what happened is that “they’ decided to see how the first one was received before committing to a second. Costume dramas, what with the many locations and the, well, costumes are expensive, as is top-drawer staff like Maggie Smith. CRANFORD was postponed several times for financial reasons. So this is probably the new reality.

  6. PBS brought us a fine novel that ended in the middle of the story leaving us hanging. In my book that’s a huge failure to deliver. No mention of a 2nd series to come concluding the story. Only in America does one expect such sloppiness and in this respect PBS did deliver to the low standards we in America have become so complaisant with.

  7. pooh,,,,,,,,,,the screenwriter jules fails to be honest….
    a plagiarist he is when he copies very intricately the rose contest in MRS. MINIVER.

    SHAME SHAME ON MASTERPIECE FOR ALLOWING THIS TO HAPPEN

  8. I think that the clothes during that decade were the most beautiful of all – still feminine (no shapeless, droopy waists like the 20s) but not as constricted as the bustles and extreme corsetry of the 1890s. Such beautiful fabrics and colors!

  9. I don’t especially love MPT, but your review does paint an interesting picture. I might be persuaded to watch an episode or two.

  10. I am loving Downtown Abbey. I love MasterPiece Theatre especially the Jane Austen adaptations and series. It is sometimes difficult to wait a whole week to see the next episode though.

  11. As for Sandy, Masterpiece Theatre has been part of my life practically as long as I can remember, and is a big part of my writing British-set historical fiction. I discovered Downton Abeey late–just watched the episode last night and was totally hooked. I promptly ordered the series from B&N. So glad to have a long-ish series to sink into.

  12. I always have to buy the DVD’s as they come out – can’t get enough of the Brits, especially Colin…

  13. I am adoring this series. All the characters are well-drawn, upper-class and servants alike. And nobody, but nobody, does snooty aristocratic old ladies like Dame Maggie Smith. Her Lady Violet is a new favorite of mine.

  14. Loved Gosford Park. Found Downtown Abbey while playing with the PBS app on my iPhone and watched the 1st 2 episodes in bed, in the dark, under the covers, while hubby snored on. Man, am I hooked! Watched them again on my laptop so at least I would be able to see the facial expressions. =D

    Just bought the DVD set on Amazon. I am thrilled that they are filming a second season starting March 2011.

  15. I have adored this series so far! The cast are all very talented. The Mary character drives me insane. I wish she wasn’t completely unlikable, but it does add spark and intrigue to the story.

    Last night’s episode showed another awesome Maggie Smith moment. She visits Matthew Crawley at his office and is almost upended when she sits in his chair. She’s never sat in a swivel chair. I laughed so hard at that.

  16. My absolutely favorite moment came in the first part when Maggie Smith as the dowager asks, “Weekend? What’s a week end?”

    For me it epitomized the upper class when every day wasn’t a work day, so getting off or getting away for a couple of days for a break (okay, usually only one day in the case of the servants and working class then) was something unimaginable for the upper class.

  17. Masterpiece Theatre has been a part of my life for almost as long as I remember, going all the way back to Upstairs Downstairs. The Jewel in the Crown is a favorite, as is I, Claudius. Also loved Mystery, which is now incorporated into Masterpiece. Helen Mirren in ALL the Prime Suspects was a revelation. Sadly, for some years now Masterpiece hasn’t been a must-see for me as it was in years past, largely due, I think, to British dramas being available in other venues, mainly BBC American and A & E. I’m watching Downton Abbey and absolutely loving it.

  18. For me the romance(s) in this type of series from Masterpiece Theater always take second place to the wardrobes and scenery. I love all of that probably more than the character studies.

    If anyone likes this type of drama than the THE KING’S SPEECH should be on your to-see list. (not to mention more than once a day- Colin Firth!)

  19. I love Masterpiece also. I love the period pieces and am surprised to hear there is going to be a second season.

  20. I’ve been watching the series and am absolutely loving it! It’s Masterpiece at its best. And I am so excited to hear that we’ll get to see a 2nd season.

  21. I’m a huge Masterpiece fan! I have this particular series set for record on my dvr next time it airs. Hope I find it as good as you did!

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