Apparently it debuted in 2010, meaning that for two years I was oblivious to the existence of this wonderful program. It's about an aristocratic family and their servants in the English manor house of Downton Abbey in the early 20th century; anything having to do with Edwardian era splendor trips my trigger, so I began to watch.
I finished both seasons of the show in about a week and half-- 15 episodes-- and am addicted.
The story revolves around the Crawley family-- Robert Crawley, Lord of Grantham, his American wife Cora (Lady Grantham) and their three daughters.
The first two seasons span from 1912 with the sinking of Titanic, through the Great War, to 1920.
The first thing I love about the show is the history. This period-- the early 20th century-- has always fascinated me because it was marked by such great transition and change.
It was the end of an era that Mark Twain dubbed "the Gilded Age", an age of opulence and luxurious living among the upper class. Wealthy aristocrats like the Crawleys who had inherited their fortune and titles did not work, but had many servants in their employ.
World War One would mark the end of this way of life, and the sinking of Titanic was a symbolic harbinger of this. Life-- and fashions-- would become simpler and less rigid.
Like the fictional Lady Grantham in the show, many daughters of American business tycoons were sent to marry into British aristocracy; the wives would gain titles in return for adding their inheritance to the aristocrats' draining coffers. One such American woman was the beautiful Jennie Jerome, daughter of millionaire Leonard Jerome and mother of Winston Churchill.
It is admitted that Robert and Cora's marriage was not one of love in the beginning, though love grew after they were married. Basically, Cora's fortune saved the Crawleys and their estate of Downton Abbey.
Because there are only daughters, Robert's heir is a very distant cousin, Matthew Crawley.
Lord and Lady Grantham are kind and benevolent-- they use their position to do good in their community, and care much more about their servants than I suspect most real aristocrats of that time did.
The characters are so compelling-- there's the Crawleys' eldest daughter Mary, who tends to hide her emotions behind a mask of pride and snobbishness. Then there's Edith, the hapless middle sister who can best be described as the Jan Brady of the family. Sybil is the youngest daughter-- bold, modern, and politically-minded. The best lines in the show frequently come from Lady Violet, Lord Grantham's mother-- marvelously played by Maggie Smith.
There are the servants as well: the dedicated butler Carson, the noble but haunted valet Bates, and the conniving, scheming footman Thomas, who frequently plots trouble with lady's maid Sarah O'Brien.
Series 3 is currently airing in Britain, and won't be available in the States until January 6 on PBS, but thanks to kind Brits who have uploaded the aired episodes on torrents, I'm watching it already.