Review: Belated thoughts on ‘Downton Abbey’

I didn’t review “Downton Abbey” when it debuted on PBS a few weeks back for several reasons: 1)It was premiering during a horrible time crunch for me vis a vis press tour, more high-profile winter premieres, etc.; 2)I’m not 100 percent sure I actually got a screener of it; and most importantly 3)I usually have very little use for stories about the complicated lives of the British aristocracy.

Life went on. Other US critics reviewed “Downton Abbey” and swooned over it, and I didn’t doubt it was a very effective example of what it was. I’ve just never cared for what it is. We all bring our own preconceptions and prejudices to entertainment, and I can respect someone saying they don’t want to watch a show about a cancer patient who cooks meth, even though I consider “Breaking Bad” one of the best things on television.

But two things conspired to get me watching “Downton Abbey” this weekend, and I have an explanation of that, and some thoughts on the miniseries, coming up just as soon as one of my snuff boxes goes missing…

So, the two things were this: 1)I spent a lot of time discussing the commercial failure of “Friday Night Lights” with friends and other critics over the last week, and 2)For a variety of reasons, I was awake virtually all night two nights ago.

On the former, the reason I gave time after time about why “FNL” wasn’t a big hit and needed its last three seasons to be carried on life support from DirecTV was its subject matter. To over-generalize only slightly, women who would have liked the characters and storytelling didn’t want to watch a show about high school football, and men who would have liked the football didn’t want to watch a high school soap opera. I’ve read a lot of reader comments and e-mails since DirecTV aired the finale that begin with testimonials about how this or that reader never could have imagined watching a show about football (in many cases because they’re not American and think of football as something else entirely) yet fell in love with it once they were dragged kicking and screaming to the show by a friend. So in talking and reading about that phenomenon, I had to acknowledge that there are often exceptions – that just because a genre bores me in general doesn’t mean that a show within that genre couldn’t wow me. So I resolved at some point to sample the show if I could ever find the time.

And that time came on Friday, when I was awake, had burned through all the interesting screeners I had for upcoming shows, and just decided to browse through Netflix Instant looking for something I hadn’t seen before. And that something wound up being “Downton Abbey.”

At first it was almost like a joke: if anything was going to put me to sleep, it would be a show about the noble aristocrats and hard-working servants of a lavish English country estate. And, indeed, I found my interest wandering in the early going as the Granthams kept talking about breaking the entail and whatnot, and I thought for sure my sense of my own prejudices would be proven right.

But then Mr. Bates hobbled into the house, and something about his circumstance – and the performance by Brendan Coyle – grabbed my interest. I kept watching the first episode (Netflix has the 7-part British version, as opposed to the way PBS presented most of the same material in 4 parts) because I wanted to see if he would keep his job. And by the time Lord Grantham pulled him out of the car and insisted he keep his job, I had started to become interested enough in the workings of the servant end of things that I kept going. I had to stay up for a while, anyway, and it was easy to just keep jumping from episode to episode, and before I knew it I had watched the whole damn thing.

Now, I wouldn’t say I loved it. Parts of it I didn’t even like. I became quite engaged with what was going on downstairs with the servants, while I found virtually everything having to do with the Granthams (at least the parts unrelated to how they dealt with the staff) a chore to get through. Many of the performances were quite fine – Maggie Smith’s right eyebrow could out-act most of the actors on the CW combined – but none of it was enough to overcome my complete disinterest in the subject matter itself.

On the other hand, much of the stuff with the servants – the office politics, the logistics of making a big house run properly, the push/pull between duty and personal fulfillment, and the idea of viewing your employers as a surrogate family (even if many of them wouldn’t reciprocate those feelings) – was pretty fantastic. Very early on, it seemed the show was going to be an unapologetic ode to this type of living and the notion of noble masters and humble servants, but things proved to be more complicated than that. (Again, on the servant end; Robert Grantham was an unfailingly perfect character.) For this particular region and class of people, the time period was just as transformative as the ’60s were for the “Mad Men” characters, and Julian Fellowes did a good job of balancing nostalgia with a more cold-eyed assessment of the era.

If I come back whenever Fellowes and company finish the second series, it’ll be for Mr. Bates, Mr. Carson, Mrs Hughes and company – and quite possibly if I wind up having another sleepless night.

I know some of you were curious for my take on the show. Now it’s your turn. What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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