America's Surprising Excitement Over Season Three of Downton Abbey
PBS Demonstrates that Quality and Entertainment Can Coexist
For years PBS (Public Broadcasting System) has been another name for high-quality, educational television. When the public wanted romance, intrigue, and riveting drama, they flocked to Showtime, HBO, or other, more commercial networks. Then, in January, 2010, PBS Masterpiece Theater aired the first episode of "Downton Abbey", a U.K. favorite series, and America was hooked.
Although U.S. audiences have long been fascinated with aspects of British life, interest was typically centered on the Royal family, Jane Austen-like shows, or international politics. No one was more surprised than Americans when we realized we were hooked on an entertaining PBS series borrowed directly from popular British television.
However, when you take a closer look, it's easy to see why so many of us will carve out an hour on Sunday nights this January, to make sure we don't miss a minute of "Downton Abbey", Season Three.
"Downtown Abbey" Trailer
It's a Great Story
In the very first episode we meet Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, his wife Lady Grantham, and their three beautiful daughters. They are an upper-class British family living a tranquil, pre-World War I life on their elegant English estate. Although the daughters cannot inherit the estate, the family is comfortable with the current line of inheritance. Their eldest daughter will marry a male relative and all will be well.
However, in 1912 their world is turned upside down when they learn that both male heirs have perished on the Titanic.
This devastating news sets in motion events which affect everyone on the estate. There is everything from love affairs to outright rebellion. The Crawleys and their servants eventually become embroiled in a series of complex, riveting dramas.
History itself also complicates events, as we see the group affected by World War I and an influenza epidemic.
The Major Players
Robert, Earl of Grantham
Earl and the head of the Crawley family
Cora, Countess of Grantham
American wife of the Earl
Lady Mary Josephine Crawley
Oldest daughter of the Earl
Lady Edith Crawley
Middle daughter of the Earl
Jessica Brown Findlay
Lady Sybil Crawley
Youngest daughter of the Earl
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham
Dowager Countess and the Earl's mother
Casting Makes the Series
"Downton Abbey" not only introduces American viewers to a group of fine new British actors, it is anchored by some outstanding, well-known performers. As a result, the show has collected numerous awards, including a Golden Globe for Best Miniseries - Television or Film.
Watching Maggie Smith weave her acidic, always-on-point magic is almost reason enough to catch this series. However, the rest of the cast also sparkles. From Hugh Bonneville's loving but troubled Lord Grantham, to the youngest, most confused servant, every actor in the show keeps viewers fascinated, wondering how they'll get out of the pickle the writer's have put them in.
New actors have been introduced and others have left (sadly, one of the sweetest servants is lost during World War I). But the Crawleys, like families everywhere, carry on.
Teasers indicate that Shirley McLaine will become part of the cast in Season 3. No doubt she'll play a relative of Lady (Cora) Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern). The back story on Cora is that she's an American heiress who fell in love with Robert Crawley, and married him, saving the dwindling Crawley fortune.
Despite the gold digger implications, their marriage is happy. They dote on their three daughters and each other. Of course that doesn't mean that Robert hasn't looked at another woman. To find out who, where, and when, you'll have to watch the first two seasons.
It's Got Style
The creators of "Downton Abbey" have gone above and beyond to simulate the look and feel of an upper-class family in early 20th-century England. They've spared no effort to ensure audiences fall into this privileged world so completely they can smell the flowers in the centerpieces and hear the laughter of the downstairs maids.
Costumes play a big part in the effect. Each of the women wears a series of different, elegant evening dresses. Nightgowns and teagowns are also re-created in the tiniest detail. Every ensemble needs accessories, and the show's are gathered with painstaking detail. Some dresses are made for the scenes, some rented, and others are actual Edwardian costumes.
The men of Downton also cut dashing figures, whether in World War I uniforms, formal wear, or even servants' livery. In fact, costumers for the show keep in mind that, in Edwardian England, well-dressed footmen reflected a family's status. In those times no expense was spared to ensure footmen were well-turned out by the family tailor. Uniforms even included buttons with the family crest. Downton Abbey's costume staff remain true to the period and the uniforms are authentic.
The maids of "Downton Abbey" wear replica's of the period uniforms as well. The real maid uniforms were not as colorful or elegant as the men's livery and maids had to sew their own clothes. The family, however, usually provided the uniform fabric as Christmas gifts.
The series' costume and set designers' meticulous attention to these details is one of the reasons the show resonates with audiences. The show is a window through which we view Edwardian England's class, status, and gender gaps.
True-to-life Locations Take You There
Part of the reason viewers are getting lost in the world of "Downton Abbey" is the authentic feel of the locations. There's good reason for this, since many scenes are shot at Highclere Castle, in Britain. Other scenes are filmed 60 miles away, at Ealing Studios.
Filming in the great home presents challenges. For instance, actors have to moderate their speech to accommodate bigger rooms.
It might seem like fun to be involved in scenes set in such areas as the massive, elegant dining areas, but it's work. A scene can take over 10 hours to film. This means performers have to be very careful what they eat. One or two mouthfuls of food at a time can equal a lot of food by day's end.
Actors also need to change their demeanor completely when they alternate scenes from "downstairs" to "upstairs" in the great castle. In early 20th century England people living in the home were intensely aware of their class and status and adjusted their voice and manners accordingly.
"Downton Abby" is also true to the horrors of war. While these scenes are not as much fun for viewers or actors, authenticity is critical. It's important, to assure that audiences feel they are in the middle of the action and understand what characters are feeling. That is exactly what the Downton writers, set designers, and make-up artists achieve as they take viewers into the trenches of The Great War.
Servants in the Edwardian period lived virtually separate lives from their masters, even though they were in the same home. Their existence is replicated with a precision that allows Downton fans to share all the laughter, tears, joy, and frustration of the staff as they work and play in their own quarters.
Break Out the Popcorn and Get Ready for January, 2013
Whether you enjoy great style, engaging drama, or a sense of history, you'll find something to engage your imagination at Downton Abbey.
"Downton Abbey", Season Three airs January 9, 2013 and already has a huge audience waiting to see where time and circumstances take the Crawleys and their staff. If you haven't seen Seasons one and two, episodes can be viewed on PBS.org, as streaming video. Amazon Prime members can catch up at no cost, via instant video. If these don't appeal, a Google search will turn up several sites with episodes available to watch online.