The first thing to be said about this series is that it is British from the very first scene to the very last by the vast range of actors and actresses as for age and the extreme quality of these actors, most of them having parallel careers in theaters, television and the cinema. They are thus able to act with a vast variety of stances and tones and at the same time with a great expressivity on their faces or with their body language. Within that great versatility and mental or dramatic agility there is not one single age that is privileged and the older generation is just as good and as present as the youngest one and the age range, apart from the few children, goes from the late teens and early twenties to the seventies. This is exceptional and no American series will ever be able to do that. A TV actor might turn up in the cinema but then he will never go back to TV, and both will hardly be able to work on a stage. The case of "Harry Potter," or Daniel Radcliffe if you prefer, is typically British who can play on the stage or act in a film. That mobility is not American, and American television sure misses something there, just as much as it misses the use of older actors and actresses, as well as very young ones, leveling the cast within a twenty to thirty years age bracket.
The second element that makes this series beautifully and exceptionally British is the fact it is situated before, during and after the First World War in England and everything is there to tell you, you are in England. The Mansion in which the action takes place, the official Downton Abbey, which is of course not the real name, the village next to it, the array of vehicles and cars, the steam engine and the train, even the London of that time, all is reconstructed the way it was or used to be. Only England can have that Tudor architecture. It is in no way similar to anything anywhere else in the world and if there is something looking like it in the USA, it is nothing but a copy, hence a fake, or maybe, like the old London Bridge, a rejected ruin that was bought over here and brought and rebuilt over there, in a piece of desert even.
The third element is the society it depicts. There is the upstairs of the aristocrats, lords, ladies, duchesses, earls and so on that is so English in its vanity, social exclusiveness, social segregation, social racism even. And there is the downstairs of the servants, the copy cat hierarchy of the service from the butler at the top to the housekeeper at the top too, then to the valets and the footmen on one side, and to the maids and kitchen hands on the other side, and with some hierarchy within each echelon of this social descending ladder. To be in the service was a great honor and privilege and one could spend one's whole life in it and climbing the rungs of that ladder one at a time over the decades. But this series is exceptional because it goes far beyond that simple capture of social stratification.
The main lady, the wife of the Earl has an American mother, and brother (not very much present in the series), and this American line is always the source of some humor more than anything else, though of course it is also the source of a lot of money and opportunities.
The chauffeur of the estate is Irish, a republican socialist what's more, and he falls in love with one of the three daughters and she would have eloped if her father had not accepted to change his mind. This daughter will die in childbirth and the Irish socialist ex-chauffeur who is thus the father of a little girl who is a blood relative of the family is accepted in this circle but as the one who is going to take over the management of the estate, hence a full time job, and yet he does not feel at home really. But he finds a real position because of what he is doing: saving the English aristocracy from being bankrupt and run over by the capitalists, by becoming capitalists themselves, with the help of a new generation of non-aristocrats who break all kinds of rules just because they can since they are not aristocrats.
The heir of the estate is a non aristocrat (he inherits the estate but not the title) but his fate is tragic though he provides the family with a very much desired male heir. His wife, the oldest daughter, is a very strange character though she might be able to change and evolve with the world, especially after the war because England has to change fast if they want to avoid some social upheaval.
The general picture here is fascinating.
In the same way what is happening downstairs is fascinating with love and hatred, with spying and plotting, of all sorts, even a rape here and there to pepper and salt the scene, a few violent crimes too, well disguised if possible. Not to speak of a possible divorce that is not brought to its fulfillment because the woman dies in the mean time. Bleak and dark, and yet some women in that set of servants are outstandingly honest and humane. This world is a world of its own and that too is interesting.
All together this series is a lot more fascinating than I have said because of these numerous and varied levels of social norms and taboos that are broken or challenged by a set of extremely good actors and actresses that make the show a real gem of television production. Note the way the Prince of Wales who was to become a king who married a divorcee and was obliged to abdicate because of it is ridiculed, is absolutely funny, though that more or less covers his bad political reputation since he was on Hitler's side, more or less, and to show him as having the most careless and freewheeling morality you can imagine for a future king justifies the fact that he was nicely pushed aside. It could not be done with more humor, though very cruel humor for that prince who has to acknowledge what could have been a scandal and his obligation to owe one to a set of aristocrats who used the skills of their servants to salvage a situation that was desperate. The London season is really funny then.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU