Monday, February 18, 2013

The World's Classiest Soap Opera


I’ve seen it discussed on Facebook. I’ve overheard conversations about it between my in-laws. I’ve seen ads for it on PBS. I’ve critiqued some of the actresses’ gowns at awards shows. I’ve even participated in a virtual tea party inspired by it. But until last night, I had never actually watched an episode of “Downton Abbey.”

Needless to say, I am hooked.

My husband watches it occasionally, so he attempted to fill me in on the various characters’ relationships and plotlines, both of which are more convoluted than any daytime drama or nighttime soap I’ve ever seen. After watching a single (albeit 2-hour) episode, this is my take on the phenomenon that is “Downton Abbey.”

The world of DA is filled with pretty, blond, young men. Most of them are high-class gentlemen who have married into the family. Several of them are actually houseboys or footmen. And one of them used to be the chauffeur but then he married one of the ladies of the house (and I mean “lady” literally, as in, “the Lady Sybil,” not just, “the lady, Sybil”) who promptly died in childbirth, leaving him with a baby daughter and a gaping rift between himself and both the family and the servants. The prettiest young man of all [MAJOR SPOILER ALERT] held his first child (a premie who miraculously weighed about 12 pounds at birth and could already hold his head up) and then immediately drove his car into a truck and died.

Does it get any soapier than that?

But because it is both British and a drama, there are a number of characters who are less than Hollywood gorgeous. There are two young blond women with long noses who are generally rather plain but who light up when they smile that I kept confusing with each other. One of them is the daughter of the house who is considered to be “the homely one;” the other is a former housemaid who has been promoted to being a lady’s maid but who is still called by her first name by the family, which is apparently something of a scandal among the servants. She is also married to a man with dark hair, which indicates that he must be also a servant. Among the men, the most obvious not-leading-man-looks belong to Carson, the head butler. Carson is feared among the staff because of his sharpness and high standards. It’s hard to tell from the single episode I saw whether he is generally a sympathetic character or a disliked one, but this particular episode showed the soft marshmallow center inside his crusty exterior, as he gave the servants a day off and declined to join them, recognizing that his presence would curtail their fun, and then proceeded to march into the nursery where the baby was screeching and bounce her in his arms to soothe her while cooing to her. (It says a great deal about the actor himself that the baby was actually screaming – not dubbed – and immediately stopped crying when he picked her up.)

Naturally, no discussion of DA would be complete without mentioning the costumes. The Dowager Countess, played by Dame Maggie Smith (more on her shortly), made her first appearance wearing a stunning grey-green heavy velvet coat and matching hat.


Lady Mary’s burgundy velvet coat with gold trim and matching cloche made me moan with envy. The teenaged Rose caused a bit of a scandal by appearing in a party dress that revealed much too much back and shoulders for her mother’s taste, which caused said mother to call her a slut, which in turn caused Maggie Smith to raise her eyebrows and very drily say, “Well, THAT’S not a word you hear every day.” Every hat was more glamorous than the last. And then there were the tiaras. Who wouldn’t love to live in an era when people wear tiaras on a regular basis?
 
 
And then, there’s Maggie Smith. Oh, Maggie. The woman who can deliver lines like, “That’s the thing about nature. There’s just so much of it,” with a curled lip and an air of disdain, like no other living actress. She can say more with a cocked eyebrow or a purse of her lips than most actors can with an entire page of dialog.







I don’t regret for an instant that I finally followed the herd and became a fan of DA. I only regret that I did it at a time when there won’t be any new episodes for nearly a year. Fortunately, I have three whole seasons to catch up with between now and then!

 
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