Michelle Dockery, Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey


If you aren't madly in love with Downton Abbey, that can mean only one thing:

You haven't seen it.

Blimey, what a ghastly prospect! Happily, latecomers are always welcome to this grand house party.

Even as the award-winning British period drama nears its second-season conclusion on PBS, Downton Abbey continues to gain momentum like a steam locomotive leaving Paddington Station. Last Sunday, the Emmy and critical darling was second place to the Super Bowl in its time slot, with 4 million viewers.

Here's what you've been missing—and all you need to know to join the privileged ranks of Downton Abbey fandom…

Downton Abbey


1. It's Downton, Not Downtown: And it's not about life at a convent or monastery as "abbey" might make you think! The sprawling estate—home to the aristocratic Crawley family and their household staff—was once an ecclesiastical property, hence the "abbey" in the title. In fact, their fictional digs sub for the actual Highclere Castle west of London, on grounds nearly 20 percent larger than NYC's Central Park. No wonder the servants outnumber the bluebloods.

2. Entails Are Worse Than Entrails: The Crawleys are dotty about Downton; the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)—aka Robert Crawley—even married a rich American (Elizabeth McGovern) to save it from financial collapse. But because of the truly wack "entail" law, their home and wealth transfer to the Grantham estate's next male heir.

3. Married With Children: Except the Crawleys have only three daughters. What to do? They arrange a marriage between eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) and the next heir, cousin Patrick, and bob's your uncle—everything stays in the family. Except Patrick goes down with the Titanic, and the next heir—much to the consternation of the imperious dowager countess (Emmy winner Maggie Smith, who delivers every cutting quip with undisguised relish) is a working solicitor (aka lawyer). The horror! If only Mary and the soon-to-be wealthy commoner could fall in love, wed and have a son of their own. Isn't it pretty to think so?

4. Sex, Scandal, Intrigue, Blackmail…and Muuuurder! Think those stuffy British aristocrats are prudes? As the Cockneys would say, fink again. In prewar Society With a Capital S, a girl's reputation is everything, and Lady Mary's one-night stand and its ever-expanding ripple effect threatens to destroy her future, her family and their self-sacrificing servants. Not to mention her paramour, who paid the ultimate price for seducing the young maiden.

5. Upstairs, Downstairs: Downton Abbey has not only nabbed half a dozen Emmys, but its creator and writer, Julian Fellowes, won an Oscar for Gosford Park (maybe that explains Downton's breathtaking cinematography and gorgeous costumes). Fellowes attributes his show's adulation to the "equal moral value" placed on the lives of both the servants and their posh employers. Generous Lord Grantham not only foots the bill for the cook's eye surgery—he also pays off the butler's blackmailer. The equal-opportunity employer hires a "lame" valet whose fealty approaches martyrdom. Even the bad apples— spiteful lady's maid O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran, whose real-life hotness is hard to reconcile with her severe sourpuss, and footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier)—are treated with more respect than they deserve. And crikey, the socialist revolutionary chauffeur (Allen Leech) is doing a bit more than driving with politically minded Lady Sybil.

What are you waiting for? Head to the drawing room, ring for your tea and watch Downton Abbey!

Downton Abbey's season-two finale airs Sunday, Feb. 19, on PBS. But if you're late to the party, both seasons are now available on DVD and streaming video.

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