Dame Maggie Smith plays Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, in Downton Abbey.
Everything you need to know about Downton Abbey, which aired in the UK last year and begins its run on PBS on Sunday night's Masterpiece Classics, can be found in the early reaction of a maid at the titular estate to news of a major tragedy: "It's worse than a shame," she says. "It's a complication." That's what the series is about: that feelings and humanity are important and real, but they tend to take a back seat to avoiding "complications" — things that upset the order with which both the Crawley family and their servants live their lives. Sadness is bad, but chaos is worse.
On Sunday's All Things Considered, Guy Raz talks to Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning writer of Gosford Park, who created and wrote the series, which was a smash with audiences and critics both. It features, among others, Dame Maggie Smith, for whom Fellowes says he wrote the part of Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. (After all, if you're going to write the part of the Dowager Countess of Grantham, you might as well write it for Maggie Smith and aim high.)
In addition to Smith, the cast includes Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley, and Elizabeth McGovern as his American wife, Cora, from whom he got a lot of his money. Fellowes gives a wonderful and wry explanation of American heiresses and their significance at the time — just before World War I — when the story takes place. He points out that "in Europe, to get an heiress, you need everyone else in the family to die," which made European heiresses rare, whereas American heiresses could be created by any rich person dividing up wealth among children.
Ultimately, Fellowes says, he created the highly successful series precisely by avoiding the trap of trying to figure out how to please every demographic. Because the quest for the safest possible bet for something everyone will like tends to lead to disaster. "You wind up with Son Of Easy Rider," he says, "which no one likes."
Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) and Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley) wear a variety of fabulous hats in Downton Abbey, which begins airing Sunday night on PBS's Masterpiece Classic.
It's worth noting that there's been a dust-up about whether PBS is substantially cutting Downton Abbey for American audiences — some reports have claimed that it's being cut down from eight hours to six. This, please be assured, is not true. It will run roughly six hours on PBS without commercials; it ran eight hours in the UK with commercials. And there were a lot of commercials. In fact, there were enough that the heavy load of ads was its own news story.
On a personal note, I absolutely loved this series. Loved it, loved it, from lines like "Wake me at the dressing gong" (when it will be time for dinner, naturally) to withering insults expertly delivered by Smith, who really knows her withering insults.
I am often not a period-drama person; if anything, I require convincing when it comes to tales of bustling skirts and servants on a large estate. But here, in the story of the Crawleys — Robert and Cora, their three very different daughters, and their staff — you'll find touching scenes of friendship and romance, genuinely giggle-inducing banter, and fabulously executed takes on soap staples like jealousy, scheming, star-crossed lovers, medical emergencies, and, of course, The Keeping Of A Terrible Terrible Secret.
I'll put it this way, if you want to know whether I was gradually sucked into it: the notes I took early in my viewing of the series say things like, "Mr. Bates struggles with some of his duties." My later notes say — and these are real quotes from me theoretically talking to myself — "Oh no, don't do it!," as well as "OMG RUFFIANS." True story.