Was there any doubt that I would love this? Another year of Masterpiece starts off extremely strong with Downton Abbey, a British costume drama from Julian Fellowes, who wrote Gosford Park. It's not based on any novel but has all the classic components: a great English estate, daughters needing husbands, a formidable matriarch, distant cousins, eavesdropping servants...you'd think that the viewing public would be tired of this kind of stuff by now but for me at least, when it's done well (which this certainly is) I can't get enough! And others definitely agreed with me because a second series has already been ordered!
The great estate here is of course, Downton Abbey. Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville, a regular in these period dramas and always fantastic), inherited both his title and the house but not enough money to run it. So he married for money: Cora, an American heiress (played by Elizabeth McGovern, herself an American married to a Brit and living in England). Fortunately, they do eventually fall in love, but unfortunately, produce only daughters: Mary, Edith, and Sybill. To make things worse, as a condition of the marriage, Lord Grantham's father tied Cora's money to the estate, all of which can only be passed to a male heir.
The problem, though, was thought to have been solved: Mary was to marry Patrick, the son of Lord Grantham's cousin and heir James Crawley. But then tragedy strikes. The series begins with the news that the Titanic has sunk...with both James and Patrick aboard. While it turns out that Mary (kind of an ice queen) didn't really want to marry Patrick to begin with, everyone else begins to fret about the entail. Lord Grantham's heir is now distant cousin Matthew Crawley, a lawyer whose father was a doctor (horrors) living in Manchester (double horrors). Lord Grantham seems resigned to this turn of events but his mother, Violet (Maggie Smith, doing her thing well as always) is determined to find a way to break the entail.
Matthew and his mother Isobel are invited to move to Downton, where they're instantly out of place. Having only had a maid and cook previously (I know, what modest living conditions), Matthew is flabbergasted at being given a personal valet and insists on continuing to dress himself, serve his own tea, and hang his own coat. And to the shock of everyone at the Abbey, he takes a job nearby, ensuring them that he'd have time on the weekend to learn the matters of the estate. To which Violet asks, horrified, "What is a weekend?"
Observing and discussing all this are, of course, the servants, who have their own little dramas. There's Mr. Carson, the butler, who in a way considers the Crawleys to be his own family; rather nasty O'Brien, Lady Grantham's lady's maid; Thomas, a scheming footman who aspires to be a valet and has a little dalliance going with a duke; Daisy, a young kitchen maid easily picked on but eager to learn; and the newest addition, Mr. Bates, Lord Grantham's valet. Mr. Bates served in the Boer War with Lord Grantham, and has a limp and walks with a cane as a result. This makes him unpopular with the rest of the staff, who believe he is unsuitable for the job, excepting Anna, the kind-hearted head housemaid.
The first episode aired this past Sunday and there are three more installments to come. If you miss any, you'll be able to watch it online for a couple of weeks. Very highly recommended, especially if you're a fan of period drama!