What Downton Abbey is About, and How to Binge Watch It

Downtown abbey estate
A complete melodrama buffet, plus tea.

I’m doing a 6-season rewatch of UK period drama Downtown Abbey — and Mary Mother of God — I’ve forgotten how melodramatic this show was. There are entire storylines I fast-forward past as I trudge along. (I refuse to pay any more attention the overwrought Anna/Mr. Bates storyline than I absolutely have to.)

All The Downton You Can Eat

What’s nice is you can stream all the episodes free online if you have Amazon Prime. It’s up on PBS.com too, or you can pay for viewing it on several subscription platforms. Very convenient: if you start soon you can binge the 52 episodes of Downton Abbey before the official movie/revival lands in theaters this September.

Note: it’s not called Down”town” Abbey — you must mind your Ps and Qs while watching this upstairs/downstairs show about Lord Grantham, his (entirely female) family, and the scheming servants who run the great estate. Granted, not all of them are scheming, but those are the fun ones to watch. The nicer maids and footmen fade into the ornate backgrounds, as a good servant must. 😉

downton abbey lord grantham and family
Voyeuristic, neurotic fussiness in grand surroundings.

What’s Worth Watching, What to Ignore

Actually, I enjoy the genteel honor esteemed butler Mr. Carson and Head of Household Mrs. Hughes wield — with some insightful, laser-like observations over their younger, fractious downstairs staff. These wiser, older holdovers from a simpler era, who love being “in the service”, are the best part of the show. As are the intrigues of the deliciously barbed tongue of the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), on whose bad side you do NOT want to get.

Scratch that. You don’t want to get into it with squabbling sisters Mary and Edith either. [Cat fighting screeches ensue.]

In spite of a tremendous amount of paternalist and condescending Nobless Obligue on the part of the gentry, you kind of fall into the rhythm of the lives and loves (and sometimes deaths) happening under the roof of the grand abbey. Whether you are Team Upstairs or Team Downstairs, binging Downton Abbey is like eating bon bons. You know it’s not nutritious, but you can’t stop.

servants of Downton abbey
Team Downstairs

You learn to ignore the character cliches in this show too, or you’ll never make it through. At least everything else associated with the Julian Fellowes opus is top shelf: settings, costuming, music, props, and film style. Weighty events like the sinking of the Titanic, World War 1 , and the Spanish Flu Epidemic are as present and real to these characters as 911 was in America. Will the women get the vote? When will inheritance laws change?

We know how things turned out, but the fun is in being there, watching these people live through such tumultuous times. Even the small touches, like Butler Carson learning to use the brand new telephone, is delightful.

The Importance of Titles in Downton Abbey

You also learn a few things about servants. Did you know the Butler is so far above every other employee in “service” that they all must stand at attention when he walks into the servants’ mess? He’s as far above them as the Lord of the Estate is above him.

It looks like this: Butler > Head of Household > Underbutler > Lord’s Valet > the Ladies’ Maids > First Footman > Second Footman > Housemaids > Skullery Maids. The Cook and Assistant Cook have their own category, as does the Chauffeur and the children’s Nanny. We don’t meet the Grooms or the “Hall Boys” (I think that’s what they’re called).

Honestly, this is all fascinating and hard to figure out. Also, some get called by their first names, some by their surnames, and it’s a badge of rank to get a last name designation.

Don’t ask me why any of this makes sense. There’s a whole weedy garden’s worth of laws for referring to the upstairs Lords and Ladies as well, depending on who you are in relationship to them. Apparently it’s a grievous offense to get it wrong. Thank goodness we have Butler Carson to let everyone know what’s appropriate.

lady mary and lady edith in downton abbey
Team Upstairs

Here’s the trailer to the upcoming Downton Abbey movie (Which looks like it slips right in where things left off)

A surprising amount of original characters are back in the sidesaddle again. And yes: from the looks of the trailer there’s a smack down between UMBRIDGE VS MCGONAGALL. (Be still my geeky harry Potter-loving heart!)

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