We enter the world of 'Downton Abbey' in 1912. People are unaware that a great war is headed their way. The Crawley family owns the Estate of Downton. Lord of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) is a steward of the estate, watching over it with a keen eye. The series begins with the news that the Titanic has just sunk and Downton's heir has died in the tragedy.
It's easy to see how popular this show became in such a small amount of time. It's an extremely addictive soap opera between the upper-class Crawley family and the servants that staff their house. Much like another popular British television series, 'Upstairs, Downstairs,' we see the world of turn-of-the-century England through the eyes of two very distinct classes. It provides a rather enthralling aspect.
The servants of the house are numerous. There's the staunchly moral butler Charles Carson (Jim Carter) who has been working at Downton for ages. He's trusted implicitly by his Lord, but may have a few secrets of his own that he doesn't want to share. Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) is the housekeeper, who makes sure everything is ship-shape for the Lord and Lady. She's also the staff peacemaker when one is needed. Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) has just been hired on as Lord Crawley's valet. The two knew each other in the army, but Mr. Bates is hiding facts about his health that could impede his work. Mrs. O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) is Lady Crawley's personal maid. She's a vindictive, spiteful woman who is only matched in malevolence by the footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier). Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is the head housemaid and has taken a shine to Mr. Bates. Gwen (Rose Leslie) is a maid with a dream of becoming something more than just a servant. William (Thomas Howes) is a shy footman with eyes for the house kitchen maid, Daisy (Sophie McShera). Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) rounds out the help as a cook who may just be going blind.
Upstairs the Crawleys live a charmed life. Lord Crawley is a benevolent soul who wants to know what's going on in the lives of his employees, but none of his family really understand the lives of those who work down below. To them it doesn't matter, they've got their own things to worry about, chief among them is who is going to inherit the estate now, since the heir died. Lord and Lady Crawley are afraid that their stubborn oldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) will be left with nothing since the law explicitly states that the estate must be inherited by a man. Lord Crawley soon finds an heir who has a rightful claim to the estate. His name is Matthew (Dan Stevens), a lawyer from the city. No one is keen on him inheriting everything, but they have little choice in the matter. They only hope that Mary will see the way and see if she can woo her cousin Matthew into marrying her.
Perhaps the greatest reason to watch the show comes from Maggie Smith and her portrayal of Lord Crawley's mother, the Countess of Grantham. Her verbal barbs and razor-sharp asides continually add to an already splendidly acted show.
Yes, the stories and subplots have a strong soap opera feel to them, but the characters are written so well that you'll find yourself hating or loving people instantly. Still, there are layers to them, and it's amazing to me that in a such a short season (seven one-hour episodes) that I'd be able to become attached to just about every character in the show in one way or another. There are so many people you may think it's hard to keep track of them all, on the contrary, the show does a great job at weaving storylines together so you don't miss a beat. No one is left out, with each person dealing with their own personal struggles whether they're rich or poor. Of course the great equalizer of World War I is looming in the background. After checking out season one, I'm eager to see how the second season builds on a stellar first season.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a PBS 2-disc Blu-ray release. Each disc is 50GB and they've been packaged in a standard keepcase with two disc hubs on the inside.
The first season of 'Downton Abbey' features a 1080i video presentation framed with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. For the most part the result is a resplendent visionary feast as the elegance of the Downton Estate is captured in lush HD.
Something that did bother me slightly was an artistic tactic used during the first season to blur everything around the edges, giving you almost tunnel vision on the person the camera is focusing on. After checking out season two, this style of filming seems to have been done away with. While it gives each scene a more dreamlike appearance, the constant blurred edges seemed out of place and annoyingly repetitive for no reason. However, that really shouldn't count against the video score seeing that it was a conscious effort to make the image appear that way.
Even though it's 1080i, this transfer does so many things right. Colors are splendidly brilliant and lush. Shadows are deep and add a depth to the picture and its details. The green lawns surrounding the abbey are rich and full of life. Fine detail is perfectly visible from the tiny pebbles that make up the abbey's drive to the texture adorning every tapestry found within the house. This is a great looking show made even better by high definition. As for artifacting there are a couple instances of shimmering from small patterns on jackets and coats. I did notice a few instances of background noise in the darker areas as well, but they were few and very far between. All in all, it's a beautiful looking transfer.
Like so many of the shows that make it to our shores from across the pond, we get stuck with a simple stereo mix. Not that the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix is anything to be really disappointed over, but this show has many scenes that would truly benefit from an expansive surround sound experience.
As it is the lossless stereo mix provides everything front and center, even though dinner parties, crowded political meetings and riots would've all improved if offered a few more channels. John Lunn's deep, moody score needs more room to breathe.
Dialogue is clear though. Even with the variety of thick accents on display you'll still be able to hear just about everything that is said between the show's characters. There is plenty of low-end sonics even though the sub-woofer has been left out in the cold. Along with the foreboding score, there are hoofbeats, car engines and echoing hallways that all offer some LFE. Directionality works well as there are numerous scenes that feature crowded dinner parties where guests talk over one another, yet all their dialogue is captured in the appropriate channels. While it isn't a lossless surround mix, which would no doubt make it that much better, this stereo mix is quite serviceable as is.
It isn't tough to see why this show is so popular. It's a sweeping epic of character-centric drama. It does have a soap opera feel to it, but there's heart here. There's real emotion, real characters and real motivation for each of them. I find it impossible to feel indifferently about any of the characters in this show. Whether I love them or loathe them at least they've made me feel something for them. 'Downton Abbey' is surely recommended to anyone who loves good British television and above all great drama.