I'm going to assume that there are still people out there who'd like to see this and haven't yet, which puts lots of limits on what I can write in my synopsis without spoiling things.
After the heir to the title of Earl of Grantham dies on board the Titanic, the residents of Downton Abbey find themselves in a flurry of activity. Robert, the current earl, and Cora, his wife, have three daughters. The only way they could hope to have an heir is by marrying off Mary, the eldest daughter. When the first attempt to do that doesn't work out, the family gets into contact with Matthew Crawley, a distant relative who doesn't react well to the idea of inheriting Downton.
The series is filled with a variety of characters from both upstairs and downstairs, just about all of whom get a bit of attention throughout the season. Here's just a few of them:
- Mr. Carson - The loyal, dignified butler of Downton Abbey.
- Thomas - The footman everyone loves to hate.
- Miss O'Brien - Cora's bitter lady's maid. Practically guaranteed to inspire viewer rage at least a couple times throughout the season.
- Mary - Robert and Cora's eldest daughter, who both flirts with potential marriage prospects and spurns them. By the time she figures out what, and who, she wants, it may be too late.
- Edith - Another one of Robert and Cora's daughters. They have no expectations for her, and she knows it. She's wildly jealous of Mary's easy popularity.
- Sybil - Another one of Robert and Cora's daughters. She's a naive champion for women's rights.
- Mr. Bates - Robert's new valet. He has a pronounced limp, which results in the rest of the staff treating him poorly at first.
- Anna - The head housemaid. She's very kind.
- Daisy - A somewhat simple-minded kitchen maid with a huge crush on Thomas.
- William - A footman with a huge crush on Daisy.
- Mrs. Hughes - The head housekeeper.
- Mrs. Patmore - The cook. Although she often harshly berates Daisy, she also tries to look out for her and give her a nudge in the right direction (i.e., away from Thomas).
The only reason I didn't sit down and watch this entire season over the course of a few days was because I wasn't physically capable of it. The addictiveness of its character dramas and the level of emotional investment it invites reminds me of soap operas, and the period visuals are a treat for the eyes.
I wouldn't be surprised if most viewers could list a particular character or storyline that convinced them that Downton Abbey was a “must watch” show. For me, it was Mr. Bates. Specifically, my reaction to Miss O'Brien making things difficult for Mr. Bates. Oh, my Miss O'Brien rage was huge.
It's amazing to me, how well this show managed to juggle its huge cast of characters. Nearly every character was distinct and memorable in their own way, and all of them were kept in play just enough that, when they got their moment in the spotlight, I didn't have to struggle to remember who they were. I watched everyone's storylines unfold with rapt attention. While some storylines interested me more than others, I can't recall being bored with any of it.
According to my mom, when this season first aired in the U.S., everybody at her workplace was talking about it, and I can see why. I watched it too late to do workplace “OMG, did you see what Miss O'Brien/Mary/Thomas/etc. did?” chatting, but the urge to talk about whatever latest shocker I'd come across in the show was so immense I ended up either calling my mom to chat or posting my outrage on Facebook. I now know of a couple coworkers who have seen the show and who would love to talk about it...once I get caught up enough that they don't have to tiptoe around spoilers.
There isn't too much else I can say about the show without potentially spoiling things, but I do have a few general comments. First, I was surprised at how much awareness the upstairs portion of Downton Abbey had of the downstairs portion. I knew the servants would gossip about the Earl and his family, but I was surprised the first time the family chatted about the servants. When one of the servants was having a rough time, someone from the family tried to help as much as possible, within certain limits. While the servants were staff, some of them were also, in a strange way, family. I highly recommend watching the extras – I think it's the “making of” featurette that explains the upstairs-downstairs dynamic in a little more detail.
One last thing before I wrap this up. I was worried that the first season would end in a cliffhanger, because I didn't have the second season on hand and didn't figure that my local entertainment store would have it in stock (“we can special order it for you” doesn't cut it when you want something now and, if you have to wait anyway, could get it cheaper via Amazon). Happily, although the final episode of the season has just as many “Oh no s/he didn't!” moments as any of the others, it doesn't end with what I would consider a cliffhanger. There are lots of dangling storylines I'd love to continue watching, but the suspense of waiting to get my hands on the next season isn't as great as it could have been.
All in all, I highly recommend this series. If the word “historical” makes you think “boring and dry,” think again.
There isn't much in the way of extras, just two featurettes, but what there is is worth watching. One is on the making of Downton Abbey, while the other is about the history of Highclere Castle (the setting for most of the upstairs portions of Downton Abbey).
Sorry for the skimpy list of read-alikes/watch-alikes. I know I remember Dear Author devoting an entire post to "If you like Downton Abbey" recommendations, but I can't seem to find it at the moment. In any case, if you need more recommendations, particularly book recommendations, lots of libraries have set up their own "If you like Downton Abbey" pages. Go check them out!
Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
- Upstairs Downstairs (live action TV series) - (My link is to the 2010 revival, although there is also an original 1971 version.) Another British period drama dealing with the lives of characters both upstairs and downstairs. This one takes place in the years prior to World War II.
- Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Downton Abbey" (book, memoir) by Margaret Powell - This sounds like an interesting look at what life was really like downstairs.
- Emma (manga) by Kaoru Mori; Emma: A Victorian Romance (anime TV series) - I think this takes place a decade or two earlier than Downton Abbey, but I'm never one to pass up an opportunity to plug good manga/anime. Those who liked the romance and drama of Downton Abbey and would like something else that pays loving attention to period details might want to give this a shot. I have written about both seasons of the anime and all 10 volumes of the manga - beware, my posts include lots of spoilers. Mori has another period manga, Shirley, that I think takes place during the right time period, but I haven't read it yet and have no idea what it's like.