A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that there are plenty of adult themes in this popular BBC series -- sex, scandal, and cover up; sexual assault; thievery; blackmail; sudden death -- but all are handled in very buttoned-up Edwardian English fashion. When an unmarried woman sleeps with a male visitor, both are still completely clothed when the camera cuts away. Both opposite-sex and same-sex couples kiss. There are some sad and/or tense moments (a corpse is dragged down a hallway, a medical procedure is shown in detail, a woman dies in childbirth, a beloved character is raped), but overall Downton Abbey offers the typical costume drama experience, complete with backstabbing sisters (they can be really cruel), out-of-touch but usually well-meaning upper-class characters, and a few scheming servants amidst an otherwise loyal and steadfast house staff.
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What's the story?
Beginning the day after the sinking of the Titanic and passing through World War I and beyond, this BBC series encompasses the drama of one upper-class English family, the sprawling Downton Abbey where they live, and the servants who maintain it. Lord (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady (Elizabeth McGovern) Grantham have three daughters -- Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) -- and a big problem when the cousin set to inherit Downton (and marry Mary) goes down with the Titanic. That leaves third cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) -- a lawyer who's not accustomed to dressing in a tux for every dinner. When he arrives, he's sneered at by the Dowager Countess (the always-amazing Maggie Smith) but is eventually accepted as the estate's only hope. He may be Mary's as well. Downstairs, the loyal staff includes Carson the butler (Jim Carter) and ladies' maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). But not all is sunny and loyal downstairs. Thomas (Rob James-Collier) the footman is always scheming and the new socialist chauffeur, Tom, is more than happy to drive Lady Sybil to all of her forward-thinking political causes.
Is it any good?
For fans of costume dramas, this Masterpiece Classic series (originally broadcast on the BBC in England) is a complete delight, even if it sometimes veers into melodrama. Attention to detail really draws viewers into the time period -- there's the sprawling estate, the classic cars, the first telephone, the newspapers ironed every morning, etc.. But of course it's the dresses and hats that really steal the show.
Interwoven stories are compelling both upstairs and down, and all the acting is good and occasionally superb -- Smith's sneering Dowager Countess takes relaying gossip to an art form. And sisters Mary and Edith really know how to torment each other. But for some viewers, the petty fighting and gossip might get a little tiresome, leaving characters like Mary harder to root for and the motivations of some, like the always-scheming Thomas the footman, a little hard to understand. But the lack of reflection and redemption doesn't make the series any less compelling.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Downton Abbey's time period. How were things changing for England and the world when the show first began? How did technology change life for both the upper and servant classes? How do the times change as the show goes on?
How could you find out more about the historical events that the series refers to/takes part in? How accurate do you think the show is, from a historical perspective?
What makes a show like this so appealing? Is it the characters? The setting? Do you think there's infinite potential in a series like this, or can the stories eventually run their course?