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Downton is a true masterpiece
Dec. 31, 2012
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by Ivan Raconteur

There aren’t many television programs that make me wish I was a better person.

The truth is, most of the bilge available on television makes me despair of the human race.

One series that breaks the mold and actually makes me wish I was a better person is the PBS gem, Downton Abbey.

As we prepare for the start of 2013, one thing to which I look forward is the US release of season three.

For those who have not experienced the magic of Downton, it is a lavish period drama set in England at the beginning of the last century.

Filmed extensively in Highclere Castle, the series revolves around the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants they employ.

Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville, is the patriarch. He, his wife, Cora, and their three daughters live in Downton Abbey.

The interaction between the family and the staff is part of the appeal of the series.

Critics may say some of the plot lines are a bit soapy. Others might think there is an abundance of romantic entanglements in the series. Perhaps these things are true.

What is also true, however, is the marvelous writing, acting, and production of the series far outweigh any minor criticisms one may have.

Writer and creator Julian Fellowes has created a world that feels real, and has populated it with a host of memorable characters.

The way he weaves story lines throughout each episode provides a clinic for anyone who wants to learn how to write drama.

The brilliant actors who bring the characters to life take Fellowes’ writing and make it soar.

There are no one-dimensional people in this production.

Bizarre though it may seem, we begin to care about these characters as if we know them.

As we observe the delicate romance between Anna Smith, the head housekeeper, played by Joanne Froggatt, and Mr. Bates, played by Brendan Coyle, who serves as Lord Grantham’s valet, we find ourselves rooting for them and suffering along with them when obstacles are thrown into their path to happiness.

Anna, who has been a rock among the household staff, always competent and efficient, begins to see there may be more for her in life than her work.

We find ourselves hoping Lady Mary, the eldest daughter, and Matthew Crawley, the heir apparent, will finally get together. We realize, long before they do, that they belong together, and we want them to be happy.

Some of the players in Downton Abbey are veterans with resumés a mile long. Others are relative newcomers whose performance on Downton will propel their careers into new orbits.

One of the delicious Downton treats is watching the venerable Dame Maggie Smith in the role of Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Robert’s mother).

Our first impression is that she is a stern, inflexible relic of a dying social system.

We soon learn, however, that she has a practical, almost philosophical way of making the best of any situation, even those with which she does not agree. She also has a wickedly funny sense of humor.

Carson the butler rules the downstairs staff with an iron hand. He is serious, meticulous, and demands propriety in all things. Yet, even Carson, with his gruff exterior, has a softer side, especially where Lady Mary is concerned. He also has the greatest male voice ever.

Words like honor and responsibility can seem out of place in today’s environment, but they are an essential part of the world of Downton.

All of the characters, from Lord Grantham to Daisy, the kitchen maid, struggle with issues of honor and responsibility in their own way.

Even the bitter and conniving Sarah O’Brien, Cora’s lady’s maid, is revealed to have a value system that guides her behavior.

Perhaps it is the way the series portrays questions of character at all levels that leads us to realize that, whatever our station in life, there are standards of conduct by which we must abide.

We might find ourselves wishing we were more like Mr. Bates, who believes he has no right to judge any man, even though he has been harshly judged by others.

We may admire Lord Grantham, who makes decisions based on what is right, not what is popular.

We find ourselves respecting Daisy, who struggles with issues of honesty and loyalty in her relationship with William, the footman.

Too often, we have been conditioned to expect little from television programming.

Instead of substance, we get smoke and mirrors.

Even in rare occasions when something good slips through the cracks, we get less of it than we used to. For each half-hour program, we get about 22 minutes of content, and eight minutes of commercials.

Watching a series like Downton Abbey is a feast for the senses that we can appreciate on many levels. It oozes history, drama, and humor in abundance.

Like a good meal with friends, Downton is a program into which we can sink our teeth and savor every delectable morsel.

It sets the bar for what entertainment can be.

Downton can even provoke a cynical curmudgeon into wishing he was a better man. I have noticed I sit up straighter while watching the series, and my manners and vocabulary improve.

As television programming goes, that’s not bad.

The third season premieres on TPT Sunday, Jan. 6 on Masterpiece Classic.


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