‘Downton Abbey’ a lavish costume drama with strong cast

Entertainment industry insiders probably weren’t predicting a British costume drama set in the early 1900s about a wealthy family and their household of servants would become one of the most buzzed-about TV shows last year.

Yet “Downton Abbey” achieved the difficult task of becoming a favorite with both critics and viewers. The show’s lavish sets and costumes, and its depiction of scandals, heartbreaks and class struggles during one of England’s most dramatic eras of change, make this one of the most fascinating period dramas produced in recent times.

The show takes some cues from the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and another famous British drama, “Upstairs, Downstairs,” but it presents a vision and tone all its own. The series (the second season currently is airing on PBS in the United States) follows the rich Earl and Countess of Grantham, Robert and Cora Crawley, and their daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil, who occupy an elaborate estate in England called Downton Abbey. Yet despite a veneer of splendor and wealth, all is not well at Downton. The Earl’s daughters will not be able to inherit their family’s money or estate (it must pass to a male heir), a fact that creates a certain amount of resentment. The Earl’s oldest daughter, Mary, is pushed to marry the heir, the Earl’s young cousin Matthew Crawley, who works in the law profession. Mary snobbishly turns him down, only later realizing she actually does love him.

However, only about half of the show’s air time is devoted to the aristocratic Earl and his family, and the other portion — which is just as fascinating, if not more so — is devoted to the family’s staff of servants, who must deal with their own set of scandals and struggles. Though most of the servants are content with their social class, others are not, and they envy the Crawleys’ wealth and position.

I’m a big fan of British shows and period dramas in general, and if you like “Pride and Prejudice” and other BBC dramas, you’ll probably like “Downton Abbey,” as well. Yet even if these aren’t the type of shows you normally watch, consider giving it a try.

My friends and I good-naturedly joke about “Downton Abbey” being our “historical British soap opera” 😉 but it’s actually more than that. Yes, there’s plenty of romantic drama — will Lady Mary and Matthew still end up together, even though he’s currently engaged to someone else?; will the family’s young Irish chauffeur confess his feelings for Lady Sybil, even though they’re not from the same social class?; and will head housemaid Anna Smith and Lord Grantham’s valet John Bates finally tie the knot? — but that’s not all the show is about.

Despite their differences in social classes, the aristocratic Crawleys and their servants really aren’t that different: They all have hopes and dreams that don’t always come true, and both groups are, in a way, limited by their social classes. Although the servants sometimes regret they aren’t able to have their own lives and families because they’ve given their lives to serving the Crawleys, the Crawleys’ daughters also feel pressured by their social status: i.e. to always behave like proper ladies, to marry well, etc. Both classes sometimes wish they could trade places.

There’s a lot of strong performances in this show, so it’s difficult to narrow it down to the best characters. The sweet-natured housemaid Anna Smith (played by Joanne Froggatt) and the self-sacrificing Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) have emerged as fan favorites, as has the Dowager Countess, played with razor-sharp wit by the great Maggie Smith, who supplies many of the show’s best lines.

The show has already aired in the United Kingdom, so if you research the series online, be warned you may run across a few spoilers. A few reviews seem to indicate critics thought the second season was a little too fast-paced, but I’ve only seen the first two episodes of season two so far. There were a few plot details that seemed a little rushed in the first episode, but I didn’t find any pacing problems in episode two.

The third episode of season two is airing Sunday on PBS, but if you’ve missed the first season, you can catch it on Netflix. The first episodes of season two also are available for instant streaming on http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/watch/index.html for a limited time.

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