Downton Abbey, a British period television series following Earl Grantham, his family, and their help downstairs, is a good example of what happens when you give a soap opera a decent budget and an historical setting. Downton Abbey may be an upstairs/downstairs soap opera with a better production value, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of. From its emotive opening theme, which is performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, to Maggie Smith’s endearing witticisms, Downton Abbey amounts to more than a guilty pleasure.
Downton Abbey makes great use of its actors, starring and guest. Dame Maggie Smith, who plays Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, is the clear winner here. Her one liners, (example include “all this unbridled joy has given me quite an appetite,” and “wasn’t there a masked ball in Paris where cholera broke out?”) She is entrenched in the elitism and entitlement of the British aristocracy, but the Dowager is also self-aware, hilarious and ultimately caring.
But the guest stars have added much to the show as well. Shirley MacLaine, playing Lord Grantham’s mother-in-law, has a sassiness rivaled only by the Dowager Countess. Though Paul Giamatti shows up in the less-than-thrilling Downton Abbey Christmas special, it’s still a joy to see him play a British aristocrat wearing a tailcoat.
Downton Abbey’s costumes are stunning. For a period piece, costume is essential. And, despite being a Masterpiece Theater production, Downton Abbey’s post-Edwardian and Roaring ’20s costumes look authentic and never cheesy. Downton Abbey‘s pilot takes place the day after the Titanic disaster on April 17, 1912, and its latest episode takes place exactly one decade later, and the attire has looked fitting for every time in between. The close eye the show’s costume designers keep to the changes in fashion during that period are clear as hairstyles, hemlines and even jewelry change. Downton Abbey’s writers understand that clothing can be a subtle indicator of social change, and with every bare arm and bobbed haircut, a deeper change reveals itself. It’s an essential element of a period drama, especially considering the changes that occurred between 1912 and 1922. It sounds like a small element of a show, but a cheap costume budget can, and has, ruined many a Masterpiece Theater and British television period series. Bad costumes kill the mood, to say the least, and it’s good to see Downton Abbey avoid that trap so common in public television.