DVD: Maggie Smith Isn't the Only Reason to Watch Downton Abbey, But She'll Do, Thank You

Admittedly, I haven't been paying a lot of attention to the British TV dramas on PBS since Prime Suspect ended. Every year during the Golden Globes ceremony, I'd feel momentary guilt that I'd never checked out Cranford, but it would quickly pass. So when I tell you that Downton Abbey (now on DVD and Blu-Ray from PBS Home Video, and streaming on Netflix) is one of the must-see TV events of the last several years, I'm not saying so with my head resting on an antimacassar and my knee supporting a china teacup filled with lapsang souchong.

Even if you never thought you'd want to watch a British miniseries set in a grand manor house in the years leading up to World War I, trust me, Downton Abbey isn't the "Good heavens, Lord Fogglebottom!" experience you might be expecting.

For one thing, it was created and co-written by Julian Fellowes, who eviscerated the upstairs-downstairs worlds of aristocrats and their servants with unsentimental acridness in Gosford Park. Fellowes brings both understanding and amused detachment to this examination of Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), who must figure out what to do with the sprawling estate of Downton Abbey after the fiancé of his daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) goes down with the Titanic.

Grantham, alas, has only daughters, and the line of inheritance can go only to male heirs, so he has to bring in distant relative Matthew (Dan Stevens) as the next in line, even though Matthew works as a lawyer -- and the concept of actually having a job is not anything Lord Grantham and his family know anything about. (Matthew, for his part, has difficulty dealing with having a valet; there's a great series of scenes where he inadvertently insults his servant before finally realizing the best thing to do is to allow the man to dress him.)

There's sex, scandal, politics and a world that's slowly coming to an end... and that's just among the family. Backstage at the abbey, the servants are going through their own personal dramas, with plenty of dreaming and scheming behind the scenes.

And yes, there's Maggie Smith -- as Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, she gets to fire off a series of delicious one-liners. But it's also a treat to see Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, the American whom Lord Grantham married for her money but somehow fell in love with anyway. (Mary is horrified that her parents, unlike "the best people," still share a bedroom.)

This is not homework-assignment, cod-liver-oil television; it's funny and sexy and unpredictable and exciting, and I for one can't wait for Season Two and the Christmas special that we have been promised for the coming year. Before that happens, get ahead of the curve and catch up with this terrific TV show.



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