“Downtown Abbey” begins with a telegraph. It’s April of 1912, and as the family and staff of the palatial mansion called Downton Abbey wake up and start their day, the news travels fast: The Titanic has sunk, and the master of the home, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, is suddenly without an heir.
Because of a tight will set in place by the Earl’s father, the estate and park will pass down not to one of his three daughters, but to the closest living male relative. That relative is a middle-class solicitor, and it’s as disconcerting to him as to his distant cousins that he’ll someday be lord of the manor.
But what makes “Downton Abbey” really shine is that it gives equal time to the large staff at the home. We are pulled as much into the minutiae and drama of the mysterious valet Mr. Bates are we are into the marriage woes of Lady Mary Crawley.
“Downton Abbey” is a classic costume drama done as only the British can do, but it has a real warmth and heart. It was written by Julian Fellowes, who also penned “Gosford Park,” and utilizes a large cast of strong actors, especially Dame Maggie Smith as the tenacious and traditional Dowager Countess of Grantham. To see her get exasperated at the new electric lights and frown in confusion at the concept of a weekend is truly delightful.
“Downton Abbey” played on England’s ITV in 2010 and aired on PBS’ “Masterpiece Classics” early this year. (Its much-awaited second season premieres Jan. 8, 2012.)
This first season spanned a few years, taking us right up to the declaration of war on Germany. And while it concludes a handful of its many subplots, there are still many questions to be answered. With World War I as the likely centerpiece, the next series will continue the fascinating look at the family and staff of one mansion in northern England. —Jenny Coon Peterson