January 27th, 2012

promise tea

A Not-So-Brief Intro to Downton Abbey

I'm still liking my crazy book. In fact, I was up until almost one in the morning because I couldn't put it down while editing. I'd get to the end of a chapter and say just one more chapter, until my eyes would barely stay open anymore and I knew I wasn't truly editing. That's got to be a good sign, right, if as many times as I've read this (this has to be about the tenth time), I can't put it down?

I'm going to have to really work today if I want TV time tonight, since an era ends with the series finale of Chuck. It's been a shadow of its former self lately, but I still want to see how it ends. However, my current TV obsession is Downton Abbey. I have to admit that it's essentially a soap opera, but it has British accents and history and it's on PBS, so it counts as Quality Television.

We're in the second season now, but for those who haven't yet discovered it, the series follows a British noble family and their servants, starting in 1912. The earl is one of those British noblemen who bolstered his dwindling estate by marrying an American heiress. That worked out well for him, as they ended up falling in love and being very happy while the estate thrived, except for one teensy detail: they had three daughters, and the lovely home and all the lovely money (including the money the wife brought to the marriage) has to go with the title to a male. It's not too bad because the earl has a slightly distant cousin who has a son (making him an even more distant cousin -- they aren't hillbillies or the royal family) who is engaged to the oldest daughter, Lady Mary, which means all the lovely money and the lovely house will stay in the family. And then the cousin and the cousin's son go down on the Titanic. Oops. Then things get interesting.

Lady Mary: Whew, I really dodged a bullet there.
Lady Edith, the middle sister: Wow, you really are a cold-hearted bitch. I see you've already gone into half-mourning. You may notice that I'm still wearing all black.

Normally, Mary would be the kind of character I hate, the beautiful snobby one. But I love her. Some of it may be residual awesome because Lady Mary is also Susan, Death's granddaughter, the nanny feared by the monsters under the bed, and I could totally see Mary riding Binky, Death's pale horse, and wielding a mean fireplace poker. But we do start seeing cracks in her icy facade that reveal a lot of vulnerability, and the surest way to make me crazy about a character is to first make me not like the character and then force me to change my opinion. Then I'll defend the character to the death.

After the Titanic, the new heir is Matthew, who is (gasp, shudder) a lawyer. This isn't a lawyer joke. They're just scandalized that he has a job. It's probably because his father set such a poor example for him by being a doctor. You know you're in bizarroland when the lawyer son of a doctor isn't considered a good catch until he becomes a potential future earl. Maybe this is why I like the series -- it counts as fantasy, as this place is even stranger than Narnia. The earl decides to make the best of the situation and invites Matthew to come live at Downton so he can get to know the estate he'll inherit and start studying Earling 101. Matthew's not entirely keen on all this and insists on continuing to practice law, saying he can earl on weekends. That baffles the family, mostly because they're not familiar with the concept of some days being different from others. (See, it's a total fantasy world. I bet they even have weekends in Narnia.) They also think it might be good if they can marry him to one of the daughters, which he's not keen on until he gets a look at Mary, and then he figures he might be able to take one for the team.

But the best thing about Matthew is his mom, a former nurse who is better known to Doctor Who fans as Harriet Jones, Prime Minister. She's totally on board with this nobility thing, even though she's awfully middle class about it.

Isobel: Isobel Crawley, future earl's mother
Everyone at Downton Abbey: We know who you are.
(that will only be funny to Doctor Who fans)

Isobel's nemesis is the earl's mother, Lady Violet, played by Maggie Smith, who is brilliant at every little moment, from her witty lines to her facial expressions to sitting in a swivel chair. Seriously, one of the best moments in the entire series consists almost entirely of Lady Violet and her first encounter with a swivel chair when she visit's Matthew's law office. Isobel likes to shake things up and Lady Violet wants everyone to stay the same. If she had her way, they might still be wearing animal skins and living in caves. It worked for their ancestors, so why should they presume to change things?

There's all sorts of other stuff going on, including the new valet that everyone hates until they all love him, except for the evil footman and the evil lady's maid, and then there's the sibling rivalry, the politically minded youngest daughter and the radical Irish chauffeur, the maid who wants to be a secretary and sneaks around studying typing, and the kitchen maid who doesn't realize she's totally barking up the wrong tree. Oh, and there's the dead Turkish diplomat in Lady Mary's bed, which becomes an ongoing problem (the fact of him -- he's not still there stinking up the house).

After a rocky start, Mary and Matthew actually become friends because they may be the only two people in this group who can carry on an actual conversation and say what they think to each other instead of maintaining the social facade. And then they fall in love and he proposes, but you know it can't be that easy. There's that issue of the dead Turkish diplomat that she feels she ought to tell him about but that she's afraid to tell him about, and then her mother has a surprise pregnancy, so he might not inherit, after all, and he thinks she's delaying because while she might marry the future earl, she won't marry a (gasp, shudder) lawyer. And then World War I starts.

That may have been a bad move. Well, yeah, the war was a very bad idea, but it also means that with Matthew off at war that makes it a challenge to come up with reasons for him to be around so we can have scenes of him and Mary gazing at each other. You see, he's moved on and gotten engaged to someone else, just as she's realized that she really does love him. So she keeps a picture of him under her pillow and prays for his safety every night, and gave him a cherished childhood toy to take to the front as a good-luck charm, but it's just because he's her beloved cousin (not too close a cousin, mind you, as they're not hillbillies or the royal family). And he takes her good-luck charm with him when he goes into battle and always seems to go to Downton, up in Yorkshire, first on leave rather than to London where his fiancee is -- but it's because of his family, of course, including his beloved cousin.

And they have lots of conversations along the lines of:
Mary: I'm just happy for you that you're happy being engaged to someone else.
Matthew: I'm happy that you're happy for me, since I just want you to be happy.
Mary: Well, I can be happy if you're happy.
Matthew: Then that makes me happy.
Lavinia (Matthew's fiancee): Oh, for heaven's sake, will you two just kiss already? I mean, I'm engaged to him, and I spend all my free time while he's at war or at Downton on leave writing romantic fanfic about you two.

I love me some good romantic pining, especially when it involves a man in uniform and a woman in lovely period costumes. I'm totally unspoiled, even though the second season has already shown entirely in England, but by the rules of war movies, Matthew might be in danger, what with that last heir thing and an engagement, but by soap opera rules, since he's in a romantic triangle, that might give him a chance of survival. I'm thinking there may be some shell shock, and we'll know which woman is right for him based on which one can deal with it. The fun thing is that his fiancee is actually likable and Mary is very nice to her, so there's no bitching. But there is still that dead Turk ...