10 Things You Need to Know About Downton Abbey

Within the last few months, you've probably heard murmurs about a little show called Downton Abbey. Well, those murmurs exploded into full-on raves very recently as PBS premiered the first episode of season two on Jan. 8, with everyone from an America's Next Top Model judge to comedians Patton Oswalt and Michael Ian Black chiming in on Twitter to comment on the phenomenon. Now that your friends and coworkers are all abuzz with gossip about the English period drama, you might be ready to dive into it or possibly write it off altogether. Before you do either, you need to know a few pieces of information to make the most informed decision (or at least be able to vaguely follow your friends' Downton Abbey conversations).

  1. It's not DownTOWN Abbey

    It's an easy enough mistake to make if you aren't familiar with the show since downtown is actually a word, and Downton is, well, a place some British writers made up. But if you don't want to be laughed at, or worse, glared out of a conversation about the show, you'd better get the name right. It helps if you say it with a snobby British accent. Downton Abbey is the country estate (think castle rather than cottage) of an earl and countess. The drama in the series revolves around these elites, their family, and the servants in their household, and boy, do they have a lot of drama.

  2. It's set in the best time period possible

    We probably all have our favorite eras — some of us probably even prefer shows set in the future. But there's something about the early 20th Century that draws us in, and Downton Abbey seems to touch on every awesome aspect. At the end of the Edwardian era, the romantic tragedies of the Titanic sinking and the world going to war for the first time combine with the impending change when the rich and poor will become more equal. There may be perfect period costumes and an American accent you wouldn't recognize today, but the show deals with the real issues and history, from the Suffragette effort to the war effort. And it doesn't bother dragging through time like real life; it zips through two years in just a season so we can get to the good stuff.

  3. It's not Pride and Prejudice

    Just because it's a period drama with fancy costumes and a rich upper class doesn't mean that this show is really anything like a Jane Austen novel. The etiquette and decorum are similar, though the Austen story and the PBS show take place 100 years apart, but Downton Abbey has an edge that Ms. Austen wouldn't dream of. It's like comparing Mad Men to Happy Days just because they happened in related time periods. Without spoiling any of the fun parts of Downton, there is death, sex, and some behavior very unbecoming of a lady. You won't be bored, and you won't be wading through thick, flowery language trying to follow the plot and figure out which are insults and which are professions of love.

  4. The servants aren't all good and the rich aren't all bad

    The beauty of Downton Abbey is that no class is stereotyped. Each character has a developed (and evolving) personality regardless of whether they hang out down in the kitchen and servants' quarters or live the high life and are waited on hand and foot. Among the servants, there are truly honest, decent people, who either love their job and harbor a fierce loyalty to the household or tolerate their job but perform it with integrity, and there are those who will trample on others to get their way. Among the wealthy characters, some are kind-hearted and progressive, others are ruthless and manipulative, and many fall convincingly in the middle.

  5. Ugly sisters are the worst

    This is one lesson we learned from the Kardashians that seems to apply to every time period. When you start watching Downton Abbey, you might earnestly want to like Edith, the middle of the Earl's three daughters. With her shrew face and unsexy haircut, you think she must be the most beautiful on the inside, but it doesn't take long to see that she's got a serious case of sisterly jealousy. In fact, there's not much else to her character besides her malicious intent to destroy her elder sister's happiness, and it's kind of believable in a society that values beauty and winning the affection of men more than whatever else poor Edith might've offered to the more modern world. Feel sorry for her if you must, but don't trust her for a second.

  6. It's not all love stories and rivalries

    On the surface, this series might seem like it's targeted at the gentler sex, but don't let all the manners and corsets fool you. With the announcement of the Great War (or World War I for you modern folks) at the end of the first season, Downton Abbey ushers in a new kind of drama. We're taken to the trenches in France where rich and poor fight side by side. We see the toll the war takes on all those back home and the inner struggle of the men who haven't enlisted yet. We probably won't be seeing Saving Private Ryan levels of gore, but many of the plot lines will surely be more appreciated by men than women.

  7. Maggie Smith's still got it

    Even though Smith looks like she could've been alive in 1912 when Downton Abbey opens, she's still one of the highlights of the cast. The actress, best known recently for her role as Harry Potter's Professor Minerva McGonagall, plays the role of Dowager Countess of Grantham, which is a fancy way of saying she's the Earl's mother who still has considerable say in the way things are run around Downton Abbey. Smith has a way of delivering withering stares and crippling insults in a such a polite way that you wouldn't know whether to cry or thank her. She also makes a believable out-of-touch old lady, asking what a "weekend" is and taking on a new-fangled swivel chair. Smith has already won an Emmy for the role and has recently been nominated for a Golden Globe.

  8. And the rest of the cast matches her

    Though the rest of the cast is more unknown to an American audience than Smith is, you won't be disappointed by the caliber of their performances. Many of them are famous among Brits and you may even recognize a couple if you've seen the right films. In particular, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, who play the Earl and the Countess, stand out from the pack, earning Golden Globe nominations this year for Best Actor and Actress in a TV Miniseries or Movie.

  9. It's making PBS cool again

    We say "again" because you can't deny your childhood love for shows like Wishbone and Reading Rainbow. For decades, PBS has really only appealed to the very young and the very old (or at least very serious) viewer, but with the introduction of Downton Abbey, PBS is generating buzz they haven't experienced since the death of Mr. Rogers (may he rest in peace). The show earned four Emmys last year and was watched by 13 million people, merits that might bring PBS back to the glory we felt it deserved when we were five.

  10. It's online

    Whether you want to catch up or peek ahead, the Internet has the Downton Abbey episodes for you. Season one is available to stream on Netflix and PBS' website has a limited number of full episodes from last season and the recent season two premiere. Also, if you need your drama fix before the new episodes are shown each week on TV, the second season has already aired in England, so you can find it online if you know where to look.

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