With its opening episode, five years ago, “Downton Abbey” captivated its audience. News that the Titanic had just sunk reached the upstairs family and sent rumbles to the downstairs “family” (the servants whose lives so closely revolve around the fortunes of the family for whom they toil). The immediate male heirs to the lord of the mansion (Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham) were believed to have perished in the disaster, leaving the destiny of the estate very much in limbo.
In the course of that first hour, viewers became transfixed by the characters (some 20) who were introduced. There were the Earl and his American-born wife, their three unmarried daughters (ranging in age from maybe 22 to 16 or 17), the Earl’s widowed mother (Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham), and a distant cousin (Matthew Crawley) and his mother (Isobel), who had been living in town in relative poverty (that is to say, just plain middle class folks), until Matthew was identified as the probable heir to the Grantham estate.
And then downstairs there was another group of individuals whose sole function seemed to be to attend to the needs of those upstairs. They were also divided by rank, led by Carson, the Earl’s butler, and Mrs. Hughes, Lady Grantham’s housekeeper. They each had lower level servants who were in their charge (footmen and valets for Carson, lady’s maids and cooks for Mrs. Hughes). And, within that first hour, more than a few of them were shown to have personalities and life issues of their own.
What made this episode so fascinating wasn’t so much the story, which, as later became evident, was little more than glorified soap opera. Rather, it was the care that was taken in presenting what seemed like an entirely accurate (if dramatized) look at life in aristocratic England in the second decade of the twentieth century. And, in creator and principal writer Julian Fellowes’ hands, “Downton Abbey” has built a loyal following both in England (where episodes each season are shown on the BBC each fall) and in the U.S. (where the episodes are shown on PBS at the beginning of each calendar year). The fifth season in the U.S. just ended last week, with the broadcast of the forty-third episode of the series. And while season five contained more than a few moments of the same delight and wonder that existed in the first season, it may be fair to ponder if, perhaps, the show has peaked and needs to be retired.
Mind, it won’t be, at least not immediately. A sixth season is already planned and actors and crew have contracted to be part of it. But there are rumblings in the background. Maggie Smith, who plays the Dowager and is one of the show’s most endearing characters, has announced that season six will be her last, whether the show continues thereafter or not. And the important character of Tom Branson (widower of one of the Earl’s daughters, who died of the influenza plague in season three) has all but been written out of the script for the coming season, as he insists that he and his daughter will be taking up residence in Boston.
The story lines, such as they are, continue to vary from banal to intriguing. (Spoiler alerts for this paragraph.) This year one of the more tedious again delved into something of a whodunit, as first Mr. Bates, and then his wife, Anna (both servants in the estate) were accused of the murder of a man who raped Anna (a highlight of season four that led to an Emmy for Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna). There was also the only slightly less tiring ongoing question of whether the previously widowed Lady Mary (played by Michelle Dockery) would marry Tom Cullen, with whom she engaged in pre-marital sex because she wanted to be sure they were compatible (a somewhat shocking idea in 1924 aristocracy).
As for the rest, little of consequence happened, but everyone was still in a tizzy about it. It’s the nature of the show. The characters, all 20 of whom are interesting, if not fascinating, live otherwise ordinary lives, and whether they are upstairs or downstairs, as their station in life dictates, they deal with many of the same emotions and anxieties that are the fate of just about all of us.
At this point, “Downton” is probably more of a habit than a pleasure. It’s still a good show, with terrific acting by the entire cast, and with great staging and set designs all adding to the feel of the period. But how many weddings and dinners and scandals and romances can an audience endure before other TV offerings (or maybe even a good book) become more attractive?
For those who have been on board to this point and have seen the family and various staff members progress through a dozen years of English history, another season will probably be worth watching. The returns may be more limited going forward, but we’re invested in these people. For those, however, who have often wondered what all the shouting is about and may be thinking of checking it out, stopping after the first three seasons might be just about right.