On a whim, my girlfriend and I began watching this series a few days ago. I had heard the show’s composer explain on NPR how he had gone about creating the score, and then read an article on Andrew Sullivan’s site shortly thereafter that sought to explain the mass appeal of the show. Curious, Grace and I sat down to watch the first episode.

And were captivated.

Now, I’m not a TV kind of guy. We don’t even own a set, instead preferring to watch the occasional documentary or film via Netflix. And yet. And yet.

What a brilliantly written show. What fine actors. What subtle nuance, what development, what masterful handling of emotion. We’ve just finished episode 4, and in such a short time already feel incredibly familiar with each member of the ensemble cast and Downton Abbey itself, as if it were a real place that we could visit. So swept up have we become that it takes genuine effort to step back and as a novelist scrutinize the story so as to take it apart and see how it was done.

For what the show’s writer has accomplished is to weave a complex tapestry with such effortless skill that all eighteen characters have their own narrative arcs, concerns, and dramatic moments. It is such a finely balanced juggling act that we never feel as if we’ve lost touch with one set in favor of another, nor does it actively devolve into following one subplot at the expense of the general furthering of the main tale. How on earth does Julian Fellowes do it?

Here, as best I can manage on short notice, are some observations:

  1. When handling a large cast, give each member a defining characteristic. The honorable Lord. The Machiavellian grandmother. The kind hearted youngest daughter. The villainous footman. The naive scullery maid. Each character has one defining trait, which is then actively played upon or which brings them into conflict with another character. The lesson here is that simplicity is best when the numbers are great.
  2. Engineer crises that will evoke the strongest emotions from the audience. You have 18 characters stuck in one vast household. What manner of conflict will stir the audience’s interest episode after episode? (Warning: skip to point #3 if you wish to avoid mild spoilers). The new valet’s struggle to serve despite his lame leg which was injured during the last war. The maid’s desire to leave service and become a secretary, against all odds and misogyny. The new heir’s struggle to remain true to himself. The second footman’s torment over being bullied by the first footman and snubbed by his love. The point is that these conflicts are simple and involve powerful issues that the audience can’t help but be caught up by.
  3. Set the story in an interesting locale. Grace had never encountered pre-WW1 British society before, and was shocked, appalled, and utterly fascinated by the world of the nobility and their servants. Downton Abbey and how it runs is as much a focus of the show as the actual plots that take place within it; having a fascinating setting against which to place the struggles of the characters enhances the appeal of the story incredibly.
  4. While the characters can be reduced to one trait, and the conflicts are powerful yet simple, the tale is still told with a refined and subtle touch. The dialog is excellent, and the actors display such a depth of emotion that we feel as if we’re watching real people go through excruciatingly intense moments, not two dimensional caricatures plodding through a script. 
  5. Make sure that everything that makes it onto the screen is essential. Let everything we see is further some plot or revealing some crucial facet of the setting. Downton Abbey is told with the same economy that one sees usually reserved for short stories–nothing is superfluous.
So there you have it. The recipe might be reduced to the following: take a large cast of striking characters with easily identifiable traits in an exotic setting and have them undergo powerful yet simple conflicts that are told in a nuanced and masterful manner. 
Sound simple? Ha! If only it were so. Here’s to episode #5!