In the tradition of the BBC's Upstairs Downstairs and Robert Altman's Gosford Park, for which writer-creator Julian Fellowes received an Academy Award, the royals, servants, and middle-class relations struggle to get along. Sniffs uptight maid Miss O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), "Gentlemen don't work," but that doesn't stop Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) from competing for Matthew's affections. Though it takes awhile to warm up to the tightest-wound characters, most everyone reveals their more vulnerable side before the first season comes to an end, and a new small-screen classic is born.
The entire sprawling cast is quite wonderful, particularly Bonneville, Carter, and James-Collier, who provide a fascinating study in contrasts (the latter is downright dastardly). Unlike the version that aired on PBS's Masterpiece Classic, this set offers seven parts rather than four. Extras include a featurette, in which cast and crew discuss the production, and an introduction to Hampshire's Highclere Castle, which doubles for Downton Abbey. The first season was a phenomenon in the United Kingdom, and Fellowes has promised a second season set during World War I. --Kathleen C. Fennessy