“Downton Abbey” will end its sensational run after a sixth season, which begins Jan. 3 on PBS stations.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story referred incorrectly to head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes.
Scandal. Romance. Sibling rivalry. Heartbreak and happiness, above and below stairs. And a stately Yorkshire homestead too big to fail, but increasingly hard to afford.
That’s been the template for the powerhouse British TV series “Downton Abbey” since its debut. And the sixth and final season (which wraps up on Dec. 25 in the U.K. and debuts on PBS stations on Jan. 3, 2016) delivers more of same, on a gleaming silver platter.
9 p.m. Sundays, Jan. 3-Feb. 21, finale on March 6,on KCTS Channel 9
An instant international sensation, the show has been honored with Emmy and Golden Globe prizes. As the Crawleys, the program’s fictional English aristocratic clan, and as the servants sweating to maintain their employers’ lavish lifestyle, the ensemble cast has been justly well-praised.
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Writer-creator Julian Fellowes (a peer of the realm himself)) covers accurate details of social history and class consciousness in his scripts — not to mention the witty grace notes.
But “Downton Abbey” also is bashed as a glossy soap opera that goes too easy on Britain’s Edwardian upper crust, feeding into America’s glossy fascination with Old Money and pinky-curling manners. And it has inspired a raft of shrewdly funny parodies — from “Downton Thrift Shop” to Stephen Colbert’s “Breaking Abbey” and Jimmy Fallon’s “Downton Sixbey.”
Can one call out the show’s iffy politics and blatant contrivances, yet still find it addictive viewing?
Guilty as charged. Here are some things I’ll miss about “Downton Abbey”:
1) Maggie Smith. Most Americans don’t know what a versatile, lionized stage actress she is, nor have they seen her Oscar-winning turns in the films “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969) and “California Suite” (1978).
Here Smith will be remembered forevermore as the loftily sardonic matriarch of the Crawley clan, so convincingly out of touch with modernity she doesn’t know what the word “weekend” means.
Smith’s mastery of the deliciously zinging asides landed by the dowager countess, along with the unabashed snobbery and suffer-no-fools gaze, are priceless. When her son Lord Grantham and his clan get a little, well, too-too about everything, Dame Maggie’s been there to spritz some vinegar in the Champagne.
2) That House! Those Clothes! Filmed mainly at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the (real) Earl of Carnarvon’s country estate, “Downton Abbey” unfolds in one of those “great houses” that tend to be drafty, impossible to clean without a small army of minions, and and rack up huge utility bills.
But you can forget the upkeep and vicariously enjoy the splendor, as the aristos sip tea in their portrait-lined day room, retire to sumptuous beds by cozy fireplaces, and dine at an Olympic-size table set with heirloom silver (from soup spoon to cheese knife), bone china and long tapers flickering in ornate candelabra.
Even more scrumptious: the parade of dazzling female duds: Heavily beaded and brocaded silk and velvet gowns, stunning jewels and stylish traveling suits. (Couldn’t those drably clad ladies’ maids get at least a few hand-me-downs?)
3) The Melodrama. “Downton Abbey” is a shameless soap opera, to be sure.
Crises abound, and they can be idiotic — most famously, the spontaneous recovery from war-inflicted paralysis by Matthew, Lady Mary’s (distant enough) cousin and love interest.
If you accept “Downton Abbey” as an elegantly pulpy potboiler, exaggerated turns of fate are just part of keeping the teapot hot for more than 50 episodes. Eye-rolling over the piled-on perils of the valet Bates, and Lady Edith’s unending travails hiding her parentage of a daughter out of wedlock, is good fun.
And it’s not all treacle, mind you. Some extreme plotting has brought thoughtful explorations of rape, socialism, anti-Semitism, racism and the British class divide, between the transitional years of 1912 and 1925.
4) The Accents. I’ll miss the stalwart head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes’ rolling Scottish burr, Crawley socialist son-in-law Tom Branson’s Irish brogue and Mary’s plummy rich-girl drawl. Heck, at some point I may have to watch all of “Downton Abbey” all over again, just to hear the talk — and savor the attitude.