When it was originally on: 2010-2015, with a movie that came out in 2019
Original network: ITV (UK) or PBS (US)
Where you can stream it now: Amazon Prime
Had I seen it before: I feel like I had seen this first episode before, but never dove any deeper into the series. And don’t even remember much of this first episode.
What IMDb says: A chronicle of the lives of the British aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the early twentieth century.
Why I picked it: Once I made up my mind to have a British Imports category, i.e. shows that were primarily intended for British audiences but still took the States by storm, Downton Abbey kind of HAD to be one of those shows. Perhaps they existed and I was just unaware, but I don’t remember any British show being this popular on this side of the pond before. The closest is probably Doctor Who, but I don’t remember it becoming a big deal into the states until roughly around the same time as Downton Abbey. Now, it seems like there are Americans who build their viewing habits around British television.
I can’t help but wonder, if Downton Abbey hadn’t proved that the right UK show could be a huge hit state side, would we have streaming services paying big bucks to say things like Fleabag, Bodyguard, and Derry Girls are their “original” content? Would BBC America shows like Orphan Black and Killing Eve still be the phenomena they are? It seems like this was one of THE most important shows in terms of blurring the line between U.S. tv markets and UK British markets. Then there’s also the fact that it airs on PBS of all things, and it’s rare that you get a hit tv show that a) doesn’t have to make time for commercials and b) isn’t allowed to have the kind of swearing and nudity that’s commonplace on other commercial-free outlets.
What I liked: Maggie Smith is incredible, as one would expect. She knows how to be both funny and intimidating in a way few actors can. I wish this episode had had more of her.
I also think the pilot does a good job of setting up a lot of different conflicts: the rivalry between Mary and Edith as they compete for men; the fact that this duke man is gay but it’s 1912 so a lot of people aren’t gonna be on board with that; and of course there’s the fact that there’s no longer an heir to the Abbey, and the Granthams are going to have to use some combination of strategic marriages/legal wheeling and dealing to keep it in the family. There’s a lot of conflicts that don’t have easy solutions in sight and will still be able to fuel episodes for years to come.
The dynamic between Lord Grantham and Bates is hella intriguing as well. Grantham has all the power on paper, but yet I still get the sense that Bates has a certain power over him. In the scenes between these two, I lose the sense that Grantham is in control, and is instead just a human trying his best to control things he can’t. Bates also illustrates that Grantham is willing to go against what he’s “supposed to do” for the good of the Abbey when his heart feels strongly enough. I also think it was a really smart move to write in a character that will be able to tell us what kind of a person Lord Grantham was outside of this context.
What I didn’t like: There were SO MANY characters thrown at us throughout this pilot, and it’s really hard to tell who’s going to continue being someone I should pay attention to and who was just a side character that only mattered for this one episode. This is most evident when it comes to the various servants of the Abbey. For as many servants as there are, and as much time as we got watching servants do stuff, it’s a shame that I feel like I don’t really know anything about any of them. If the only real takeaway from these scenes is “being a servant is hard” why did that take as much time as it did? Why couldn’t I have learned more about how different servants approach their work differently? Why couldn’t I have learned more about how and why some of these servants came to work in Downton Abbey?
The problem with having SO MANY characters is that yes, I meet a lot of people, but I’m not particularly invested in any of them. No one is exceptionally likable, relatable, or interesting. As weird as this metric is for television characters, none of these characters are people I want to get a beer with. That can still work, but the way to make it work is to have them make interesting choices. Make them so wretched in their villainy that I can’t look away. The problem here is that no one is admirable enough that I’m actively rooting for them to inherit the Abbey. At the same time, no one here is a big enough asshole that I don’t want them to inherit Downton Abbey. At least not yet.
I wish this pilot had zeroed in on a small handful of characters and focused on developing them. It would have helped me figure out who I needed to pay attention to and who is just a side character that isn’t going to be particularly involved in the story. It would have helped me know those character and their dynamics well enough to become more invested than I am.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Not particularly. If I do watch more, it’s going to be because I watched this with my parents and they seemed to enjoy it more than I did, rather than me choosing it of my own accord.