TV review: Looking back on ‘Downton Abbey’

I’ve been a bit at a loss of what to do on Sunday nights this January, because for the first time in a long time, there isn’t a new episode of “Downton Abbey” airing on PBS Masterpiece. The sixth and final season of the popular period drama aired a year ago, bringing an end to the always buzzworthy exploits of a wealthy British family and their servants.

“Downton Abbey” was a surprise hit and turned into an unusual cultural phenomenon. The series followed the Earl and Countess of Grantham, Robert and Cora Crawley, and their daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil, who occupy an elaborate estate in England called Downton Abbey. People who wouldn’t normally watch period dramas tuned in every week to find out what would happen next to the characters, and the show drew a wide range of fans. I watched it, my mom watched it, and my grandma watched it. I had friends who watched it and co-workers who watched it. One of co-workers’ favorite things to do on Monday mornings would be to discuss what happened on Downton Abbey the night before. We’d gasp at the scandals and gossip about what love interest Lady Mary would pursue next.

It’s easy at first to dismiss “Downton Abbey” as a glorified soap opera, and even fans will admit that yes, sometimes the drama got a little soapy — kidnappings, upstairs/downstairs romances, health scares, and secret babies. However, the show was more than just a series of plot twists. It had one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever seen on a TV show. Although it would take too long to name all the standout actors, one of the best was Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary. Lady Mary wasn’t always a nice person; in fact, sometimes she could be vindictive and downright nasty. Yet Dockery played her so well that she never became the villain, and I found her to be a complex, sympathetic character. And of course, no one will forget Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. The Dowager was a master of snarky one-liners and produced the show’s most-quotable bits of dialogue. Although she never passed up an opportunity to roast a fellow family member, the show also demonstrated just how much she cared for her family.

The show’s gorgeous sets and costumes always added a sense of elegance to the proceedings, and I still want to steal Lady Mary’s wardrobe. It was fun to watch how technology and fashion changed throughout the show as the characters entered a more modern era.

Perhaps what really made “Downton Abbey” resonate with fans, though, is the way it addressed social issues of the time — issues that are surprisingly still relevant today. While it was fun to watch the “upstairs” family and their posh lifestyle, this series also showed us the challenges and obstacles the “downstairs” servants experienced. Sadly, being born into a certain social class did restrict one’s future, although the modern era brought the promise of more opportunities. The show’s themes of discrimination, acceptance, and equality show that we’ve come a long way — but we still have a ways to go.

I’m not sure we’ll ever have a show again quite like “Downton Abbey,” although the series is certainly re-watchable (don’t ask me how many times I’ve re-watched my favorite episodes). While I’ll always wish we had one more season, I think it ended at a good place, and it avoided the trap that some shows fall into of outstaying their welcome. If you’ve never seen the show, I’d encourage you to give it a try, even if period dramas aren’t normally your thing. And for fans who are still going through withdrawals, let’s not forget those “Downton Abbey” movie rumors that are still going around!

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