An American's Guide to Downton Abbey

An American's Guide to Downton Abbey
From Introduction:

For the benefit of the fellow just back from ten years in a cave in Tibet, let me enlighten you: Downton Abbey is a British television series set in the early 1900’s about an aristocratic family and their servants. It first aired in the UK in September of 2010, and then showed up in America on Masterpiece Theater in January of 2011. I’d call it a “sophisticated soap opera for people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching soap operas,” but that would undoubtedly not sit well with sophisticated folk who could argue rings around my collar. So fine: it’s a “period drama.”

Like many Americans, sophisticated or not, I’m a big fan. But it can be a frustrating show to watch due to the setting. It’s a world I (and I suspect most Americans) know very little about.

First off, it’s “Downton,” not “Downtown” Abbey. Until I realized this, I kept wondering what this family in the country had to do with what I assumed would be a story about monks living in the middle of a city. But it’s not “Downtown,” and there’s nary a monk or nun in sight.

If they ever explained why they call their house an “Abbey,” I missed it. Maybe it’s just one of those British/American things, like they say “bonnet” for the hood of the car and “boot” for trunk, and “fanny” for… well, look it up. So maybe “Abbey” means a “big friggin’ house.”

What the characters say and how they say it are a bit of a bother. The family members speak rather clearly for the most part. The mother, Cora, is an American, so no problem there. But even if the words are clear enough, you don’t always know what they’re talking about, with things like “entails.” It’s worse with the servants, as some of their marble-mouthed accents are impossible to decipher. The series should have been sub-titled in “American.”

Another thing that makes the show difficult is that there are so many characters. By the time we get to through Season 3 we’ll have seen about 24 main characters and another 38 minor ones. It’s a lot of work to remember who’s related to whom or who works under or over someone. Especially in the beginning, it’s easy to confuse one character for another - heavy set, middle-aged, dark-haired and well-dressed male servant: is that Carson or Bates? Thin dark-haired, middle-aged female servant: is that Hughes or O’Brien? They do kill off a few characters every season, which should be helpful, but then obfuscate everything again by introducing new ones.

The timeline can be tricky, too. In Season One we go from 1912 to 1914 in some rather large jumps. Only occasionally do they flash a date in the beginning; it’s more likely a character will refer to something that could clue you in, like mentioning he’s been at Downton for two years now.

Fortunately, you don’t need to understand everything to enjoy the show. It’s beautifully filmed, the period details are fascinating, and you usually get a general sense of what’s going on. But because I really do like the series, I thought it worthwhile to dig in and try to decipher the show for my fellow Americans. I bought a DVD of the first season so I could replay scenes over and over until I figured out just what was going on.

So sit back and let me ‘splain it, Lucy.

Cheers! (A British expression of good wishes, sometimes used before a drink, or when starting or ending a conversation.)

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