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Welcome to British aristocracy

Posted: January 5, 2012 11:30 a.m.
Updated: January 6, 2012 5:00 a.m.

OK, OK. I confess:

I’ve become a “Downton Abbey” fan.

After years of making fun of Wife Nancy for her addiction to so-called period pieces both on television and in movie theaters, I’ve gotten hooked on the PBS Masterpiece Classic series which chronicles an English manor family in the early 20th century.

 (A question, by the way: What do you call people who insist the only television shows they watch are on PBS? Answer: Liars.)

“Downton Abbey” is pretty daring for Masterpiece Theater -- sort of like a shotgun wedding between “Wuthering Heights” and “Desperate Housewives,” with a dollop of “Days Of Our Lives” thrown in … stilted language, Victorian customs, infidelity, conniving servants and lots of exquisitely paneled rooms in the cavernous manor house, which is known as -- no surprise here -- Downton Abbey.

Anyway, here’s the plot line, rolled into a couple paragraphs: the Earl of Grantham, a land-poor English nobleman whose family owns the palatial estate, marries a rich American woman for her money. They raise a family. Because they have no sons and a peculiar law allows only male heirs to inherit Downton, they plan to marry off their eldest daughter to a friendly distant cousin who will keep the manor house’s family tradition going.

But the distant cousin goes down on the Titanic, and the next heir is a guy they’ve never met. Panic ensues as he arrives to inspect the property that will one day be his.

Got that? It gets more complicated.

A houseful of servants run around all the time saying, “Yes, M’Lord” and “No, M’Lady,” but it all sounds pretty realistic because that’s apparently how aristocracy in England acted back then.

Here’s the stimulating part: all the characters are multi-faceted, with a host of bad qualities as well as good. The moment you begin to like a character, he does something so reprehensible that you know that deep down, he’s a cad.

On the other hand, when you really start despising someone, he’ll come through in a pinch with a deed so noble -- excuse the pun -- that you figure maybe, just maybe, he might be a fine guy,  in spite of his transgressions.

That goes for the women as well, including the petulant eldest daughter, Lady Mary.

The servants are a hoot. Remember now, this was in the day when wealthy gentlemen had valets (with the proper British pronunciation, rhyming with mallets). After all, who would have expected a proper nobleman to get dressed by himself?

And speaking of getting dressed, all the Granthams come to dinner each night in formal attire -- the men in tails and white tie, the women in evening gowns. Hey, this ain’t no evening at McDonald’s.

Now all this might sound a bit over the top, but the cast plays it perfectly. You can almost feel the British atmosphere oozing out of the walls of Downton Abbey, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Winston Churchill show up at the front door. And though the show might get a bit cheesy at times, it’s never boring.

Of course there’s a mean mother-in-law. What PBS story about the upper crust could get by without a mum who’s overbearing and haughty?

The new heir, Matthew, comes from a lawyer's working background in Manchester. When he scoffs at the prospect of having a valet (remember, that’s mallet with a V), Lord Grantham peers at him and asks, “Would you deprive a man of his livelihood? When you take over at Downton, will you fire all the servants, put them all out of work?”

Following that little sermon, Matthew decides Molesley, the valet, is pretty indispensible, and next thing you know, Molesley is fastening Matthew’s cuff links and brushing lint from his dinner jacket, smiling all the while.

Yes, M’Lord.

But when Matthew tells Lord Grantham he plans to get a job practicing law in the village near Downton Abbey,  the nobleman looks at him through quivering eyebrows and sneers: A job?

And on and on.

“Downton Abbey” gives new meaning to the term hoity-toity, and it’s no “24.” But engrossing, it is.           

I’m only four episodes into last season’s schedule, with three more to go. The new season begins Sunday.

Until then, I’ll be watching closely to see whether Molesley keeps brushing that lint away. And don't worry, M’Lords and M’Ladies. I’ll keep you posted.

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