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Cast: Maggie Smith, Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth McGovern, Penelope Wilton, Jim Carter, Hugh Bonneville
Over the past three years, "Downton Abbey" has turned into a phenomenon that is as surprising, as it is appropriate. But who would have thought that an imported television series from the UK would suddenly spark such a level of interest in the US that it turns into a true mainstream event.
I jumped aboard the "Downton Abbey" train late, I have to admit – only when Season 3 was released – but I took that as an occasion to watch and enjoy the series from the beginning, working my way up to this Season 3 set that PBS has sent over for review.
The appeal of "Downton Abbey" is manifold. For one, it is a magnificent drama that contains enough politicking that gives any soap opera a run for its money. Telling the story of the Crawley family in England, wealthy land owners with a long tradition and line of heritage, the series first began revolving around the family's need to hold on to their little fiefdom, when the sinking of the Titanic and the passing of certain family members abruptly changes the line of inheritance in the family. From there, the series shows how the family copes with the issue and how it uses its power to play and manipulate those around them. Adding to the drama is the fact that the series also involved the staff of the household, which is a cesspool of politics and intrigue all of itself.
Season 3 opens with everything at stake once again because Robert Crawley, the head of the family has lost the family's entire wealth in a stock blunder. No longer able to keep up their high living standards, the family has to think about downsizing, moving to a different estate, letting staff go and, of course, losing face in front of the snobbish society. If only there was a way to secure new money somehow.
When the rich aunt from America arrives – marvelously played by Shirley MacLaine – Mary, the daughter who has the most to lose, comes up with a plan to pump her aunt for money. Meanwhile Matthew, the actual heir of the estate, is seeing that Downton had been mismanaged for years and especially now that World War I was over, it was time to instate radical changes that would allow Downton to flourish yet again and maneuver itself to safety. However, these changes are so ground breaking that they offend almost everyone in the family and Matthew has his work cut out for him to not only convince the decision making family members, but to also find allies to help him put his plans to action.
But as so often in these kinds of dramas, things do not turn out quite the way you'd expect. In Downton wall have ears, ready to contort information or use it for their own good, and behind every corner isa pair of eyes watching everyone's every move. From family to staff members, everyone has an opinion and plans of their own and taken together you have a thoroughly enjoyable mix of entertainment that will keep you glued to the screen.
Consisting mostly of a cast of British TV actors, most of whom have been unfamiliar to American audiences before the show, "Downton Abbey" is a truly fascinating menagerie of traits, wits and conspiracies. But there is one scene-stealer in the show that will elicit smiles and laughs from you every time, the great Maggie Smith, who plays the family's grandmother. Not only is her character incredibly sarcastic and witty, but also never shies away from helping things along a little if it fits her agenda. But unlike the harpyie she could be, she also shows that she has a heart at all the right moments.
But the entire cast is doing a wonderful job, bringing these wonderful characters to life, both in the upstairs and the downstairs quarters of the house, and I would not be surprised to see some of the cast members making a big break-out in the future.
PBS has always been a remarkable broadcaster here in the US, and the success of "Downton Abbey" is most deserved. For countless years the network has brought us wonderful TV programming that is all too often overlooked and flooded out of the market by the major networks.
"Downton Abbey" is every bit as cool as it is old-fashioned. It is part of the appeal, I suppose. Filled with drama, intrigue, surprises and intense plot twists, this show is pure gold and if you haven't checked it out. make sure to give it a try. I know that I have been converted entirely and can't wait for the fourth season to air on PBS next year.