The series opens deliciously, with the ironing of the daily newspaper, and the delivering of a telegram. It is 1912, and the breaking news is that a certain unsinkable ship has sunk in the Atlantic. The script trusts the audience to figure it out, as the word "Titanic" is not even uttered for the first 20 minutes. Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), is upset—not just because the loss of close relatives, but he realizes the loss of two male relatives puts the inheritance of his whole estate in question. Lord Crawley married well in order to keep his family's grand home; his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is the one with the money. Now, due to a very tight "entail" in the paperwork, the estate and his wife's fortune will pass not to his eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) as it should, but to a distant male cousin, a countryside doctor named Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).
Thus sets up the drama of Downton Abbey that is always in the background (and the forefront) of characters' decisions and actions. Even the "downstairs" staff—the butler, the footmen, the maids, the cook, etc.—are all emotionally involved with what happens to "their family," as it the passing of the estate could mean their own jobs and home.
The time period is rich for subplots, including the backdrop of women's suffrage, the looming of war in Europe, and even hints of the sexual liberation of the 1920s. Poor daughter Lady Mary is an independent young woman who wishes nothing but to choose her own path in life (including her own suitors), but feels like a pawn in a game to keep her family's money. An Army-buddy of Lord Crawley's past, Mr. Bates, shows up for a job as a footman, but his lame leg causes scandal amongst the rest of the estate's employees. Matthew Crawley is very reluctant to change his humble working-man ways, finding difficulty in adjusting to the upper-class lifestyle (including having servants). And snaky servants, Mrs. O'Brien and Thomas the footman, scheme and scheme and scheme against their enemies downstairs.
Oh, and did I mention that Maggie Smith shows up playing the Dowager Countess of Grantham... aka The Maggie Smith Character? She is uppity, uptight, and full of great one-liners that only a rich snob would dare utter. At one moment, she innocently (and pricelessly) asks, "What is a week-end?"
I ended up watching all six hours of Downton Abbey on a single rainy Saturday—it is that kind of deliciously addicting series. It may not be on the level of, say, 1995's now-classic Pride and Prejudice, but Downton Abbey improves upon the rich and similarly densely-plotted Gosford Park by being allowed to take its time developing literally dozens of wonderful, complex characters.
[Read our review of Downton Abbey: Season Two]