DowntonAbbey5coverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2014-15, 525 min. (9 episodes), Color
Not rated (would be PG for adult situations)
PBS
Aspect ratio: 16×9 Widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Bonus features: C-
Trailer

Downton Abbey is the most watched British costume drama series since 1981’s Brideshead Revisited and the second most-watched PBS series ever—behind Sesame Street and in front of The Magic School Bus. I’ve talked to a number of parents who watch the highbrow soap opera with their children and noticed this pattern: it’s easy to get hooked, but teenage girls like the show best, and teenage boys will watch if the whole family is doing so or if they’re trying to impress a girl. That’s no surprise, since there’s more intrigue in Downton Abbey than action, and much of the intrigue revolves around matters of the heart. Though nothing overly graphic is shown, there are scandals and affairs and secrets that people desperately try to protect.

Like Upstairs, Downstairs, this Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series focuses on both levels of society at a British manor—in this case, the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants who work mostly in the subterranean level of the grand Yorkshire country house known as Downton Abbey. The show’s hallmarks are intelligent writing, multiple plotlines, soap-opera situations, and a cast of characters that includes ones we love and ones we love to hate. Because the characters are sufficiently complex, that’s often a matter of opinion. 

Hugh Bonneville is Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham and lord of the manor who married an American (Elizabeth McGovern), which made her Countess of Grantham. One of their adult daughters died in an earlier season, and of the two remaining, Mary (Michelle Dockery) is the snobbiest, most proper, and most helpful to her father, while Edith (Laura Carmichael) has always been the neglected one, the one DowntonAbbey5screenwith the least amount of confidence. The Crawley’s widowed son-in-law, Tom (Allen Leech), was a chauffeur before he married their late daughter, but is now beloved by them and enjoys the aristocratic life. Living with them this season is cousin Rose, played by the woman (Lily James) who will star in Disney’s live-action version of Cinderella. What’s interesting is that there are three generations of Crawleys represented (four, if you count children in the nursery that we and they seldom see), and the most entertaining among them is the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and her outspoken friend/foil Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), whose son would have inherited Downton had he not perished on the Titanic.

“Downstairs” there’s Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), who are in positions of authority, while the other main characters are kitchen workers Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and the wannabe-educated Daisy (Sophie McShera), attendants and butlers such as Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), Mrs. O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), and a whole complement of men and women who serve the family dinners. They say that all it takes is one bad apple, and mean-spirited, conniving Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is the one that often upsets the whole bushel.

Season 1 began with the family learning of their heir’s death aboard the Titanic, and the theme of change that emerged in later seasons is accelerated in Season 5, ushered in with the first radio address by the king in 1924 and the Labor party’s government takeover. Although it’s best to start this series with Season 1 and work up to the fifth, it’s still possible to watch Season 5 with no knowledge of the earlier storylines, with a few exceptions: it helps to know that in Season 4 a man who raped Anna was apparently pushed in front of a carriage in London and died, that Edith had run off with a newspaperman and gave her baby to a farmer and his wife living on Downton land to raise, and that Daisy had married a young lad who was killed in the war and is now close to his father, an independent farmer.

DowntonAbbey5screen2Season 5 seems a little slower moving than previous seasons and features characters that some might find annoying—like the outspoken schoolteacher (Daisy Bunting) who keeps company with Tom and isn’t above insulting her hosts at dinner. But the writers have always tried to include a character that “stirs the pot,” and that happens a lot in Season 5, in which there’s a wedding, a broken engagement, another death, and more police investigations. In other words, Downton Abbey: Season 5 is still top-notch entertainment, and it will probably be most appreciated by families with older girls who can enjoy speculating on who will get together with whom. My advice, though, if you haven’t been watching all along, is to start with Season 1.

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