DOWNTON ABBEY Season One. 2010. Seven episodes. Created and [co-] written by Julian Fellowes.
The male heir to the British estate, Downton Abbey, is lost on the Titanic in 1912. Since Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) have no male offspring, and the heir must be male, Cora and her oldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery) are faced with the prospect of losing a fortune. Haughty Mary has two sisters, the comparatively plain Edith (Laura Carmichael), who is basically treated like crap by the rest of her condescending family, and budding feminist Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), who tries to help one of the ambitious maids get a job as a secretary. The new heir is a cousin named Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), and everyone hopes that he and Mary will make a love match and solve all of their problems, but things get a little complicated. Matthew has a mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), who proves an irritant to Crawley family matriarch, the Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith), although on occasion they have the same goals. Violet forms an alliance with Cora.
In the meantime, there's drama amongst the servants as well. The new valet, Bates (Brendan Coyle) is not only lame, but has an unsavory history. He has raised the everlasting ire of Thomas (Rob-James Collier), who had hoped to get his job, and who teams with the sour Sarah O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) to scheme to get rid of him. [More on Thomas in a bit.] Sarah mistakenly believes Cora plans to replace her as personal maid and wreaks a terrible vengeance. The butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and head maid Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), run the household with the help of cook, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), who is losing her sight; young William (Thomas Howes), who is losing his mother; and Daisy (Sophie McShera), who has a hopeless crush on Thomas. Then there's the "radical" chauffeur Branson (Allen Leech), who talks politics with Sybil.
Downton Abbey is handsomely produced and well-acted for the most part. Smith sometimes overdoes the cutesyness of her character, and McGovern, while not a bad actress, simply seems miscast and uncertain of how to proceed. The show begins quite reasonably, but in the second episode turns into a slightly absurd soap opera when it introduces a handsome young Turkish character who dies in unexpected circumstances not much later, suddenly turning Downton into Dynasty. Much more problematic is the character of Thomas, who is gay, and while the actor wisely doesn't play him too stereotypically [aside from arched eyebrows and the occasional pursed lips], it's hard not to notice that Thomas is like an old-fashioned nasty "faggot" being fairly horrible to everyone. Gay characters are welcome in programming, but surely Fellowes could have come up with a less odious creature than this, whose inclusion even seems homophobic. [Not that all gay characters have to be perfect, of course, but this man's evil doesn't quite seem divorced from his homosexuality.] Another odd thing is that some of the characters talk "wisely" about Thomas as if it were the 21st century and not 1912! Why the hell would the unsophisticated cook know of his sexual orientation -- in 1912 no less!
Aside from that, let's get real about Downton Abbey. Its main strength is simply that it's entertaining. It's not really great drama, and it will push the envelope of credulity if it will get people watching. Taken with a grain of salt, Downton Abbey is fun if nothing else. And it does have some marvelous and memorable sequences to be fair [such as Violet being selfless regarding her prize roses].
Verdict: Proof that the British can dumb things down just as well as the Americans when they want to, but it does hold the attention. ***.