But Fellowes managed to transcend the typical by creating vivid and distinct characters who are battered and beaten by fate, evolve slowly and believably into better versions of themselves, and win us over. In the process, he communicates the complexities of class hierarchy, the rules of the serving class, the roles of women at various strata of society, and male/female relationships at a time when an engagement might well precede a first kiss.
And for American audiences who might need more of a nudge to invest themselves in the show, he starts off with a ripping good yarn to draw us in: the sinking of the Titanic and its impact on the Grantham family when cousin Patrick (due to inherit the estate as there is no direct heir) is lost in the disaster.
The setup of the story would appear to have us root for Mary, the Grantham's oldest daughter who would inherit from her father except for all these ridiculous gender-based rules. Compounding the injustice is the fact that her mother, American-born Cora whom Lord Grantham married for financial gain but nonetheless fell in love with afterwards, is unable to protect the family fortune she has brought to the family and will lose it all to the next heir, whomever he may be.
Yet when Downton Abbey opens in Season 1, Mary is a thoroughly unlikeable character -- shallow, conniving, concerned only with appearances and one-upping her younger and plainer middle sister Edith. When we meet fair-haired and pleasant-faced distant cousin Matthew -- a lawyer who opens a letter at breakfast one day to discover that Lord Grantham "wants to change our lives" -- his boyish wonder at this turn of events immediately endears him to us.
And that's what makes Downton Abbey such an unexpected feminist pleasure. It's full of these reversals of gendered expectations, and while the male characters may seem to hold the power and the cards, it's the women who determine how they are played.
Mary, who is well aware that she is the bait Lord and Lady Grantham want to use to keep the money and the house under their direct control, alternately acquiesces to and then chafes at the confining role. While we learn she was engaged to Patrick, who went down with the Titanic, it's clear she didn't love him and may have agreed only to stall for time and a better opportunity. Just before she first meets Matthew, she overhears him express his disdain for what will likely be a Grantham ploy -- attempting to have him marry one of the daughters. Stunned to realize she's overheard his remarks, and stunned also that Mary is quite attractive, he attempts to smooth over the situation. But Mary, whom we've already realized revels in being obstinate, rebuffs him in that smooth, polite way that has become the hallmark of the show -- and the thing us Yanks love the best.
The premier practitioner of the art of the elegant insult is the Dowager Countess, Lord Grantham's mother Violet, played by Maggie Smith. If one breakout character has emerged from the series, it's her -- and it's a rare thing for a seventy-something woman to become an "It Girl" due to a TV series these days. Yet at every level, women (and men) go at each other with sniper-like precision over class, bearing, manners and morals, although the female characters consistently enjoy the best lines.
Yanks must be frustrated, but what other series on American television (either broadcast or cable) has such a generous range of richly-developed and multi-dimensional featured roles for older women? Count along: Cora, Lady Grantham; Violet, the Dowager Countess; Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper; Mrs. Patmore, the cook; O'Brien, Cora's lady's maid; Isobel, Matthew's mother; Mrs. Bird, Isobel's cook; Lady Rosamund Painswick, Lord Grantham's sister. The women in these eight roles face breast cancer, blindness, death and loss -- all typical scenarios for women of a certain age -- but they also deal with miscarriage, gold diggers, old boyfriends and affairs of the heart; the latter would be inconceivable on American television unless a cougar was the love interest -- certainly not a stout red-haired cook.
There is just as much emphasis on the lives of those downstairs as upstairs; and a character who would typically be the lowest of the low -- the scullery maid Daisy -- rises above her station not only to become assistant cook but to have the prospect of becoming a landowner dangled in front of her.
Rising above one's station is another theme that illustrates the role reversals present in Downton Abbey. While the downstairs men seem happy to be in service -- a situation that elevates their status due to their proximity to the nobility -- the women constantly question their choice and seek out other opportunities that provide independence and greater self-determination. Mrs. Hughes contemplates becoming a farmer's wife; Gwen, a maid in Season 1, leaves service to become a secretary; Anna Bates, Mary's lady's maid who marries Lord Grantham's valet, discusses the prospect of opening a small inn with her husband; Ethel, a maid in Season 2, dreams of being something more and hopes a dalliance with an officer will come to something. In contrast, the one male servant who attempts to better himself is slapped down twice by circumstances; Thomas the footman finds that as the war ends, so does his career as a medic, and later when he invests his savings intending to become a businessman in the black market, he loses everything.
Even in conversation, the women show greater ambition than the men. The housekeeper Mrs. Hughes chides the butler Mr. Carson, the top dog in the downstairs hierarchy, for living through their employers and taking on their heartache so personally. She asks him if he's ever considered another life or had regrets, which she seems to possess, yet he does not. When she reminds him that they aren't family, he poignantly expresses that they are to him. During her job search, Gwen wonders why she can't make something of herself while Carson reminds her there are many young women who would be happy to be a maid in a fine house.
And in matters of the heart, the downstairs women are not afraid of calling the shots. Daisy resists being forced into marrying former footman William, whose war injuries bring him home to die at Downton Abbey, just because it's the kind thing to do; Mrs. Hughes turns down an old boyfriend who comes calling for a new wife; the American maid of Cora's mother who comes for a visit boldly kisses Alfred, a shy footman who sees women in a new light because of her advances; Daisy, witnessing the American's forward ways, tries to follow the same approach as she develops feelings for Alfred; and Anna insists on marrying Bates despite the cloud hanging over him due to his wife's death because she insists she wants her rights respected as his wife should he end up in jail.
The downstairs staff also serve as a Greek chorus of sorts. If we were unsure of how to regard the lords and ladies upstairs, we're given constant cues by the servants, particularly the women who are not duped by social niceties or fine dress. Mrs. Hughes regards Mary as "high and mighty" and wonders why Carson holds her in such high esteem; Edith is seen as the plain, dull one, while Sybil is generally regarded as sweet and generous and earns high praise when she comes downstairs to learn how to cook from Mrs. Patmore and Daisy. We also see Sybil's desire to assist Gwen in finding a secretarial job by giving Gwen her own clothes, driving her to an interview, and covering for her in the household. Her willful determination in moving beyond class barriers hints at the social upheavals that the war and subsequent events will bring.
Upstairs, the women are just as willful, both in life and in love, especially the three Grantham sisters.