By Julia Woolever
When the British costume drama “Downton Abbey” first made its premiere stateside in 2010, it was hailed as a revolutionary exploration of class dynamics among pre-World War I England’s aristocracy that was as intelligent as it was visually appealing. But this is only half the story of “Downton Abbey.” One only needs to recall that the first episode involved a storyline where an unmarried daughter of the house had to hide the body of a visiting Turkish ambassador who died in her bed to recognize that “Downton Abbey” is a soap opera at heart.
As the show enters its fifth season, this soap opera idea has never been more apparent. Historical issues are largely a backdrop for the melodramas of the Crawleys, the aristocratic family that preside over the manor, Downton Abbey, and their household staff.
In the fifth season, the year is 1924, and change is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The changes in question range from serious — the tenants who rent land on the estate demand more rights, to silly — the home’s first wireless radio is regarded as witchcraft.
But if there’s one thing that remains constant at Downton, it’s the family patriarch, Lord Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville, is vehemently opposed to modernity itself. Lord Grantham spends most of his time waxing poetic about the importance of tradition and shouting at anyone who disagrees.
Lord Grantham’s eldest daughter, Lady Mary, revels in these changes. The newly eligible bachelorette, played by Michelle Dockery, takes full advantage of expanded freedom for women. Having just come out of grieving her late husband, she takes her own sweet time to decide if she should marry any of the myriad of suitors fighting for her affections. Mary even employs her maid to purchase — gasp — birth control for her so she can go on what can only be described as a “sex vacation” with one of said suitors to determine his worthiness.
Meanwhile, middle daughter Lady Edith, played by Laura Carmichael, continues to deal with the consequences of her own “sex vacation.” She has second thoughts about her decision to have her illegitimate daughter raised by a local farming family. The father of this daughter may possibly have been killed by Nazis while he was on a business trip to Germany, but Edith is not really sure.
Yes, the melodrama is strong with this one.
But despite or maybe because of all of the melodrama, “Downton Abbey” remains an incredibly entertaining show. It may be a soap opera masquerading as a serious historical drama, but there has never been a soap opera as beautiful as this one: the atmospheric landscapes of rural England and stunning costumes truly transport viewers into the Roaring ’20s.
None of this would work if it weren’t for the talented cast. “Abbey” took home the well-deserved award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series at last week’s Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards.
These characters have real heart, and audiences can’t help but become invested in their well-being. Is it ridiculous that Lord Grantham refuses to accept even the slightest bit of change? Yes, but it’s clear that he is scared of an unknown future in which he may become irrelevant. Is Edith pathetic for whining about how the family she gave her daughter to won’t let her become a nanny for them? A little, but it’s also heartbreaking to see her separated from her daughter. These characters are human, and that’s what makes them relatable.
So forget the idea that “Downton Abbey” is a highfalutin drama that only octogenarians can enjoy. Surrender to the soap opera, and enjoy the wild ride.