My aunt may be the world's biggest Jane Austen fan. She attends Austen-themed balls and published a collection of quotations culled from years of devotion to Austen's works. She owns every BBC production of an Austen title (she also owns one or two Hollywood productions, but preferring her Austen as pre-Victorian as the author intended, sniffs at their revisionist interpretations). She is, in short, a lover of things droll, romantic, and consummately British. And were it not for one scene in the first episode of Downton Abbey, the smash-hit British series that is now running on PBS, I would recommend it to her unreservedly.
It wouldn't be fair to dwell too much on the moment early on when two male lovers kiss as nothing like it occurs again throughout the rest of the series, and the character involved is hardly sympathetic. The only time anyone references the homosexuality of Thomas, the spiteful, gossipy, scheming footman, it is to note that he is a "troubled soul" and has "seen and done more than is good for him." A later scene where he makes an unwanted advance toward another man is more likely to offend groups like GLAAD than adult Christian viewers.
Still, why creator Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) includes something that will provoke many a mom and daughter, cozied up on the couch, to abandon the series before it even gets rolling is a mystery. Perhaps he wanted to earn early goodwill from critics with a splashy show of counter-culturalism? Whatever his intention, from that point on, Downton Abbey develops into a traditional English tale concerned with matters like grace, integrity, and the dignity a person gains, no matter how high or low their rank, from serving others in love.
Like many an Austen family, Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) find themselves in the conundrum of having no son to inherit their estate. Their plans to engage their oldest daughter, Mary, to the cousin who will inherit are scuttled when the young man goes down with the Titanic. Instead the title, land, and money fall to an obscure third cousin who is, as a brilliant Maggie Smith in the role of the dowager countess hilariously points out, the kind of odd, middle-class person who uses words like job and weekend. Their only solution-get the girl married to the new heir.
Mary (Michelle Dockery) is something of a Scarlett O'Hara, stealing her sister's beaus to prove she can and declaring whatever the English version of "fiddle-dee-dee" is at social convention. However, like the rest of those who live and serve in Downton Abbey, she is more than a mere archetype. Imagine if Pride and Prejudice's shallow, impulsive Lydia had to deal with the consequences of her affair with Wickham. Mary has such an affair, but it isn't tidied up for her. Rather she is plagued not only with rumors but also her own sense of shame.
The servants employed on the estate are equally layered as they struggle to maintain their place in a world where class distinctions are rapidly crumbling. A blackened reputation keeps Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), the humble valet with a lame leg, from expressing his love for ladies' maid Anna. Sensing change in the wind, Irish chauffeur Branson spouts socialist ideals even while he cherishes capitalist dreams. Such characters make up for a bit of spotty plotting toward the final episode as some couples are kept apart seemingly just for the purpose of cliff-hanging into a second season.
The only major disappointment is the fact that PBS decided to deprive American audiences of two hours of content the Brits enjoyed, cutting the series from eight hours to six. Apparently PBS felt we Yanks wouldn't be able to understand certain aspects of British inheritance law and social custom. To that I say, tosh! I'm no anglophile and I didn't have the least problem following (and savoring) every twist of Fellowes' serpentine plot. When the second season comes out, I vote those of us across the pond demand that we too get the full treatment. Because while Downton Abbey isn't perfect and it isn't Austen, it is sincere, witty, and far better than anything else you're likely to see on television this season. Unless, that is, you take my advice and buy the original UK version on DVD.