Series I finale aired Sunday, January 30, on PBS. All episodes streaming at pbs.org through February 22.
I opened my first draft of this post by describing the British TV series Downton Abbey—which I enjoyed tremendously—as a soap opera for Anglophiles. The phrase was meant to be self-deprecating (and not entirely serious), but the more I thought about it, the less I liked that glib remark. The show has its share of melodrama, certainly, but the term soap opera didn’t sit right with me.
The distinction, I believe, is this: soap operas demand not only heightened, exaggerated plot turns but also heightened, exaggerated emotions and characters. And for the most part, that description doesn’t apply to the saga of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants. One particularly jaw-dropping plot twist might be bizarre and lurid (and damn, is it ever), but the fallout from it feels very human, very true, and that’s typical of Downton Abbey. Creator Julian Fellowes isn’t above indulging in a few melodramatic flourishes, but the underlying storytelling always feels grounded in characters too substantial and sincere to allow the show to be dismissed as soap opera.