Downton Abbey: Pilot

 Posted by on May 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm  Downton Abbey
May 042011

I was not thrilled when Deborah suggested that I take on Downton Abbey. It sounded like a rehash of Upstairs Downstairs and I wondered if the production was fresh enough for viewers accustomed to gritty and innovative television.

I shouldn’t have been so skeptical. The showrunner, Julian Fellowes, won a best screenplay Oscar for Gosford Park. Clearly, this guy knows how to do a period piece. Fellowes has a gift for transporting the viewer to the days before World War I, when the British still lived under a strict, complex, and, for all of its undeniable elegance, suffocating social code. I make it sound terrifically boring, but if you like soap dressed up as PBS fare, this show’s for you! I was hooked from the minute the credits rolled.

ALERT: SPOILERS (after the cut)

April 1912. In the Downton Abbey estate, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grantham, and his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), wake up to the news that the Titanic has sunk. Robert’s cousin and heir apparent, James Crawley, perished on board alongside his son. This personal loss is a devastating reversal of fortune. Downton Abbey will belong to the male heir of the Grantham line and, unfortunately, Robert and Cora have three daughters. Worse still, Cora’s substantial fortune will also go to the next heir in line, which in this case is a distant third cousin, the son of a common – GASP!! – doctor. (No, Cora and Robert are not even remotely Jewish.) They had hoped to keep the title, the estate, the fortune, — the whole shebang- -, within the family by marrying their eldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery) to their cousin’s son. When informed of her fiance’s passing, Mary just wants to know how long she’ll have to wear black. (To add to Cora and Robert’s woes, their two eldest daughters are manipulative bitches. Have I enticed you now?) Alas, there is no legal recourse for the Crawleys’ predicament, other than finding Mary a rich husband with a title (Mary and I have so much in common). Mary, as we will see, is not going to make this easy because the chick is complicated. The Earl resigns himself to the loss, but Cora and his mother, Violet (Maggie Smith), are intent on finding a solution. “Are we to be friends, then?” Cora wants to know. “We are… allies,” answers Violet. (Silly Cora! What do you expect with a dowager for a mother-in-law, rugelach? Seriously, though, is that not the classiest way to cut someone down? I found it educational, which is why this show deserves to be on PBS.)

Meanwhile, downstairs where the servants hang out, John Bates (Brendan Coyle), Robert’s new valet, arrives. Bates walks with an obvious limp and all the servants arch their collective eyebrow, obviously wondering why Robert hired him. (The entire cast has mad skilz for acting with one eyebrow.) Cora’s maid, O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas (Rob James-Collier), the first footman, discuss the possibility of Thomas being promoted to valet.  But they first have to get Bates out of the way. The two exploit his limp to the hilt through evil lies and rumors about his competence.  (See? It’s just like a modern office. Bet Steve Carell will show up in season two.) Just when you think that the whole world is against poor Bates, the Earl appears downstairs. He even calls Bates his “dear fellow”! It turns out they’re war buddies. Nothing like the threat of trench foot and gangrene to forge a lasting, genuine friendship. (Alas, modern guys have to make do with athlete’s foot.) Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the head maid, is also sympathetic to Bates’ plight as evidenced by her googly eyes.

In the meantime, another telegram arrives. I forgot to explain that a telegram was the old-timey equivalent of a text, except with no smiley faces or sneaky surcharges at the end of the billing cycle. Also, people were sober when sending one. The young (and available) Duke of Crowborough plans to visit Downton Abbey. When he arrives, the family and servants line up outside to greet him. As the Duke passes by Bates, O’Brien kicks the latter’s cane and he falls on his face. (I could have slipped through the TV screen and gone Jlo on O’Brien.) Her dirty trick seals Bates’ fate.

Lady Mary’s romantic prospects look bright when the Duke insists she give him a private tour of the “hidden chambers” of the manor. Mary is about to ask the Duke if he’d also care to see her “sugar walls” and her “umbrella”, when she realizes that by “hidden chambers”, the Duke actually means the servants’ quarters. (You filthy cows.) Specifically, the male servants’.  Oh, Mary! Do you not see now why the Duke is “available”?

Upstairs, Robert fires Bates, on account of his humiliating the family with his disability. Alone in his room, Bates breaks down and cries. Brendan Coyle is the only man on earth who can make weeping look manly. He broke my heart. Who’s going to hire him now?

The Duke’s visit proves to be a red herring, as you already guessed. On top of everything else, he plays mind games with Robert purely because he’s bored and Hulu hasn’t been invented yet. By the way, if you ever needed a graceful way of calling someone’s bullshit, take a page from Robert.

And finally the Duke’s real purpose is revealed in a steamy tête-à-tête with Thomas.  They had a summer fling, which Thomas saw as an opportunity for advancement via blackmail.  The Duke merely came to collect the mash notes he wrote Thomas, which he now tosses into a fire. He then announces he will leave first thing in the morning. So the seemingly eligible Duke turned out to be both gay AND evil. Mary and I have more in common than four letters in our names.

In the morning, the Duke bids everyone adieu and Bates hitches a ride to the station with him. At the last minute, Robert chases the car down. He pulls Bates out and gives him back his job! There’s this beautiful moment when the two look at each other and nothing more need be said. You can see Robert’s loyalty to his friend and Bates’ very real gratitude.

And just when you thought you’d never meet the bastard, third-class arrivistes who will inherit Downton Abbey, we cut to Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), and his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) having breakfast. A letter arrives from the Earl. Matthew tells his mother, astonished, that Lord Grantham “wants to change their lives”. (You and I must make do with Publishers’ Clearinghouse.)

So there it is, folks. Intrigue! Drama! Beautiful clothes! Gorgeous cinematography! Men in uniforms, speaking with British accents! And lessons on cutting people down with an arched eyebrow and a well-timed pause. Welcome to Masterpiece Theater.


  19 Responses to “Downton Abbey: Pilot”

  1. It’s a fine show & a good choice to follow. Also available on Netflix Streaming. The producers edited the shows to fit Masterpiece Theater’s time slot (longer with no commercials). Not much of substance was removed but the Netflix version lets you see every original minute.

    The heir is a lawyer, not a doctor; his father was a doctor. And his mother previously played “Harriet Jones, Prime Minister” on Doctor Who. Continuing themes: Breaking the Entail (by which the estate, title & fortune must follow the male line, Which Sister is the Worse Bitch? (the youngest of the three is OK) & Boo, Hiss to O’Brien & Thomas!

  2. I got this on DVD weeks ago and plowed through the show…so, so good. Only some things annoyed me like that nasty downstairs servant and his hag being a little over the top EVIL. I like that Lady Mary was given more shades than just being the snobby bitch…I came to really like her.

  3. Watched it as part of Masterpiece on PBS. Brilliant although Robert Crawley is an idealized benevolent master of the manor. He is concerned about the third class passengers on the Titanic, is kind to the servants and the disabled, and actually loves his wife, remains faithful, and GASP! they share a bed! Not exactly characteristics of the typical turn of the century aristocrat. Julian Fellowes is like the British Aaron Sorkin, and he saves his best lines for the divine Maggie Smith. The best one-line zinger from Dame Maggie: “What is a weekend?” Oops, that’s from episode 2 but not really a spoiler.

    • In case it’s unclear, this is a regular series. Marly will be doing the full 7 episodes of S1, and then start up again with S2.

  4. Eh, it was ok I guess. Frankly, I thought the characters were a little broad and some of the plot elements were pretty obvious, but it was diverting enough.

  5. @not Bridget: Yes, Matthew is a lawyer but his father was a doctor! Imagine the shame!

    @JS: Yes, I think the women in the show are very well-written, especially the two sisters.

    @ Empress Rouge: There are moments and people who are a little too good but I enjoyed that aspect too. I was rooting for all of them. Except Thomas and O’Brien.

    And like one of you mentioned upthread, the show is available on Netflix streaming. I had a blast!

  6. I enjoyed it very much, but then again I just would, as Gosford Park is the one that always comes to mind first when someone asks, “What’s your favorite movie?”.

    The costumes are positively edible (Maggie Smith wears a lace number I nearly wept over in the second or third episode involving a flower show). And the way the show ends is not what you’d expect, either.

    If you liked Downton Abbey and haven’t seen Gosford Park you should give GP a try. It’s complex and worthy of multiple watchings. I almost NEVER watch movies more than once but I had to watch GP three times before I caught all the dialog and nuances.

    Lipps, thanks for covering this.

  7. YES! Downton Abbey!

    This series (can’t wait for season 2!) filled my want of period pieces over Winter Break. Really good series overall, although it took me a while to get used to Mary (akin to some other characters in other popular series….).

    I just wanted to mention that even though it is only one of the side stories in Downton Abbey, I gotta say that because I’m a sucker for cute, predicable romances (and because I absolutely adore Brendan Coyle), that one of the main reasons I kept on watching was for Anna and John scenes.
    (If you are interested in more Anna and John scenes, they cut out a small side story involving them in the US version, and I would recommend the UK version if you wanted to see that. Otherwise, there isn’t a significant difference.)

    • blazingfox, I agree about Anna and John. Marly and I both watched via Netflix streaming, which has the full UK version.

  8. Funny review but to be a little nitpicky, it’s Michelle Dockery not Vickery who plays Mary (she also had a small but significant role in Hanna) and UK broadcasters generally don’t do pilots so this should just be called episode 1.

  9. @Hazel: You’re right, it’s Michelle Dockery. I have no idea where I got Vickery from.

  10. # 6 I recall there being Three Sisters not two !

  11. If you enjoyed the obvious chemistry between Bonneville and McGovern, you’ll enjoy “Freezing”

    (If you like Tom Hollander, you’ll love it.)

  12. There are three sisters. I meant the relationship between the two older ones which we’ll see as the season develops.

  13. Oh, Mary Crawley makes my heart hurt. So much to come for her. She grows so much.

    Edith… Well, she’s definitely the bigger bitch. Though I do sympathise with the obvious middle child syndrome she’s experiencing. (There are times when I expect her to go all Jan Brady. ‘Its always Mary, Mary, MARY!’)

    I love Sybil. She’s just lovely. Very like her father.

    This show is so fantastic. I need s2 right now! My nerves can’t handle worrying what is going to happen. :/

  14. Be sure that you watch the full UK version of the shows (the ones available on DVD and iTunes) because the PBS versions were badly edited. The DVD also has a wonderful “making of” and a feature on the castle used in the program.

    Mary Crawley is absolutely gorgeous, and Sybil is the sweetest thing ever. I’d love to see a mini-series just on her.

    Edith and Mary really did each other in, but Mary will have an easier time than Edith going forward.

  15. Wow, I@ Beaky I had a totally different reaction about who is the bigger bitch btwn Mary and Edith. I’d say Mary is totally the bigger bitch. In later episodes she is sooooo manipulative and really does things to hurt her sister in a big way. It seems like Mary is the spoiled one who gets all the attention and isn’t very nice and Edith is just trying to carve a little place out for herself over her big sister who sucks up ALL the oxygen in the room. I get the impression that Mary is the one who starts the trouble and Edith tries to get back at but never can b/c Mary always has the upper hand. They clearly loathe each other but it seems like Mary will always win b/c she’s older, prettier and more likely to get her own way. It would be hard not to be a bit bitchy too with someone like that as your big sister.

  16. I am thrilled that the Lippsisters bloggers have decided to also take on reviewing and discussing this wonderful show I’ve recently discovered. As happened when I first watched Mad Men, I am hooked and obsessed with Downton Abbey. I think many Mad Men viewers would enjoy D.A. show as well, for the same reasons that they love Mad Men: the myriad of fascinating characters and their intricate relationships with one another, and the fact that it takes place in a bygone era that modern audiences tend to romanticize as being “the better days”.

    Now I have a one-stop blog for my Mad Men and Downtown Abbey needs. 🙂

    • What a wonderful thing to say, Cherry. We’re definitely expanding. I’m as obsessed with Hell on Wheels as you are with Downton, and then of course there’s Arthur’s Walking Dead coverage. We’re really trying to live up to our motto.

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