Occupying "Downton Abbey"

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Have you caught Downton Abbey fever yet? It’s the latest series from the 40-year-old Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theater) franchise on PBS, and the season two premiere aired this past Sunday at 9pm. For a network greatly accustomed to critical acclaim and industry recognition (four top Emmy awards were won by DA last year) but not as used to blockbuster rating hits, Downton Abbey is a bit of an anomaly.

Elizabeth McGovern Downton Abbey

Image courtesy PBS

The two-hour premiere delivered a whopping 4.2 million viewers in the U.S. (Nielsen), which is double their usual average prime time rating. And that number doesn’t even include the extra eyeballs that were collected from DVR recording and online streaming. Its ability to generate online buzz and offline water cooler conversations would make Downton Abbey the envy of any major television network.

Downton Abbbey Granthams

For the uninitiated, Downton Abbey is a stylish and captivating period piece about the insanely wealthy earl and countess of Grantham, as well as their many children, relatives and "service people." They all live in a house the size of a small town, where they rattle around making power plays and hosting very fancy dinners. Which sister (Mary, Edith or Sybil) will snag the most illustrious husband? Which male heir will inherit the title of earl? Which of the service people will be head housemaid or footman or valet? At the start of season two, World War I has just broken out, and the folks from the Abbey have something far more substantial to bicker about. As the able bodied from both sides of England's spectacularly rigid class system head off to fight the Germans, the sumptuous mansion (truly a character in its own right) may be turned into a convalescent home for the wounded soldiers.

There are many compelling and convoluted character relationships in Downton Abbey, and I would wager that the sad romance between John Bates (a wounded valet played by Brendan Coyle) and Anna the head housemaid (Joanne Froggatt) would be tops in popularity. But there's also Lady Sybil, who might cross class lines for the bold Irish chauffeur, Tom Branson. Eldest daughter Lady Mary is terribly unlucky in love and pining away for her cousin Matthew Crawley. Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), is married to the wealthy American Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). And the entire clan is headed by Violet, the dowager countess, played by the superb, award-winning actor, Maggie Smith. There are so many key characters in Downton Abbey, one needs a scorecard to keep track of them. Actually, thanks to the PBS website, such a tool actually exists. Visit this page to keep the names straight and vote for the Abbey-ites you love or loathe the most after each episode.

As much as I adore Downton Abbey, I find it a bit disconcerting that I’m going gaga about a TV show that fawns over the idle rich. We live in (what the idle rich might call) "greatly reduced circumstances" in the U.S. today, with an ever-growing economic divide, a diminishing middle class, and an Occupy movement that takes over parks to protest Wall Street. Why then is this show about people who live in a 100-room house and can't even dress themselves so endlessly fascinating? Is it because we also get to see a three-dimensional portrait of the service people who toil faithfully to keep the Abbey going? Is it because our own lives have become less colorful in these times of unemployment and busted 401K accounts? Maybe it's because everything is easier to swallow in the U.S.A. when you slap a crisp British accent on it.

I think Downton Abbey succeeds because it is so artfully done. Everything about the series screams quality, from the writing, to the casting to the gorgeous costumes. Even the war scenes in the season two premiere feel like something one would expect from a major motion picture. It must cost a fortune ... I better get that check written for PBS before they start the annual fund drive.

Downton Abbey service staff

It's also refreshing to watch a production where the characters are not predictable. They have many layers. This is not the show to watch whilst you have your nose buried in an iPad. One must pay attention. I was astonished to see that two of the foremost "bad guys," Thomas the footman and the evil sister Lady Edith, may well be on the road to redemption. Or at least, they're not as hateful as I had originally assumed.

As I eagerly await the next episode of Downton Abbey, I’m reminded of my mother Alice, who passed away many years ago. Before she died, we used to spend hours on the phone dissecting the latest plot developments of another Masterpiece classic, The Jewel in the Crown. Oh, how Alice would love the Abbey. Mom: If there’s TV in heaven, I know you’re watching. Maybe you can even peek ahead to the end of season two. Can you send me a sign if Matthew and Mary are going to get back together?

Watch Downton Abbey Sunday nights at 9pm on your local PBS station. You can catch past episodes on Netflix, the PBS website or On Demand. Take a look and tell us about your favorite character!

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