From the archive
“Downton Abbey” arrives wrapped in the shiny foil of cachet TV (PBS, WWI, tea and corsets!). But the British series, about the aristocratic Crawley family and their titular home, goes down so easily that it’s a bit like scarfing handfuls of caramel corn while swigging champagne. To let us know that we’re safely in the Masterpiece zone, Laura Linney, clad in a black cocktail dress, introduces each episode with a tense grin, as if welcoming us to a PBS fund-raiser, which I suppose she is.
I could pick at small elements of the show, especially the extraordinary obstacles placed in the way of about fifteen separate couples. (There’s enough unrequited love to make “The Remains of the Day” look like “Caligula.”) A few villains have hearts as black as coal; a few of the decent people could use a good noogie. A threat of blackmail is overheard through a heating duct. And, despite the show’s reasonably nuanced examination of social class, there’s a suspicious ping of nostalgia that one detects over time. But I can’t lie: when I reached the final DVD in my preview package and realized that it was missing the Christmas finale, I let out an animal howl. With its perfectly crafted zingers, waves of pure heartbreak, and a visual thread count so dense it may actually qualify as a controlled substance, “Downton Abbey” is situated precisely on the Venn diagram where “prestige” meets “guilty pleasure”: it’s as much cake as it is bread. And, sue me, I like cake.