Compulsively watchable from the get-go, “Downton Abbey” fulfills the “Masterpiece” designation more faithfully than just about anything else to grace the PBS showcase in years. Featuring one great line after another courtesy of writer Julian Fellowes and a splendid, sprawling cast, this early 20th-century melodrama owes a spiritual debt to “Upstairs, Downstairs” and Fellowes’ “Gosford Park,” as it alternates between the affairs of great lords and the humble folk who staff their houses. After practically inhaling the six-hour production in one greedy gulp, my sympathies to those who’ll have to patiently spread their enjoyment over four successive Sundays.
The events of “Downton Abbey” are deliciously set in motion by the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, with the specter of World War I’s outbreak looming as a growing threat.
Downton Abbey, a huge estate presided over by Lord Robert Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), must pass to a male heir. But the lord has sired only daughters, and the man one of them, Mary (Michelle Dockery), was to wed has gone down with the ship, throwing the property’s future into chaos.
Grantham reaches out to a distant cousin, a young solicitor named Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), as the next in line, but he must marry into the family to secure Mary’s inheritance, a bounty whose stewardship the lord ruefully describes as “my third parent, and my fourth child.” Yet Matthew is viewed as little more than a bumpkin by most of the Granthams, especially Robert’s mother, the Dowager Countess, played by a scene-stealing Maggie Smith.
Yet all that is truly, pardon the expression, the tip of the iceberg. There’s the lord’s new valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle), a war veteran whose arrival triggers scheming and intrigue among the service staff, particularly the self-serving footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier); petty jealousies involving Grantham’s daughters; and plenty of romance — unrequited and otherwise — in the mansion, from its decorous chambers to its bustling bowels.
Fellowes’ tale effortlessly juggles a mind-boggling assortment of storylines — each practically worthy of a Jane Austen novel and absorbing in its own way. The remarkable trick is that longings of the lord’s plain, overlooked daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael) and the chef’s harried assistant Daisy (Sophie McShera) are handled with equal care.
“Downton Abbey” (shot, incidentally, at Highclere Castle in Berkshire, which instantly vaults onto my must-visit list) already created an understandable stir in the U.K., igniting plans for a sequel. That said, the program builds so cleverly toward its elegant conclusion that it wouldn’t be a tragedy had the story simply ended there.
It’s facile to say the Brits excel at such productions, since this is the sort of material — especially in its period exploration of class distinctions — their Yank counterparts seldom tackle. From virtually any angle, though, “Downton Abbey” is an almost peerless piece of real estate.