NEWBURY, ENGLAND: It was May at Highclere Castle, the Georgian mansion that serves as set for the titular building, and the cast was halfway through the six-month shoot for the show’s final season. When Season 6, which has already aired in Britain, begins Sunday on “‘Downton’ was the rising tide which lifted all boats in every way, shape and form,” said Rebecca Eaton, the “Masterpiece” executive producer. “To have a hit of this magnitude put us back in the international conversation about drama.” Everyone involved, she added, “is feeling quite sad.”
<a data-cke-saved-href="http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/downtonabbey/" href="http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/downtonabbey/" title="PBS's " downton="" "="">From its opening, with the news (via ironed newspapers) of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, to this final season, set in 1925, when women are working and great houses like Downton are foundering, the series has been catnip to audiences fascinated by a bygone era, the ways of the aristocracy and a social hierarchy in which everyone’s place, however high or low, is rigidly defined.
<a data-cke-saved-href="http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/downtonabbey/" href="http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/downtonabbey/" title="PBS's " downton="" "="">“‘Downton Abbey’ reconfigures conflicts between the lords and ladies upstairs that are mirrored by tensions among the servants below,” Alessandra Stanley, a former television critic for The New York Times,wrote in 2013 of Season 3. “Fortunes lost can be regained, some class lines can be breached, and love triumphs again and again, and then one more time.” The series, she added, “is a fantasy that gets sillier in prolongation.”
The erosion of those clear lines — which began early in the series when the chauffeur Tom Branson married Lady Sybil and slowly made his way into the heart of the family — is a persistent theme in Season 6, with talk of downsizing the staff, some of the servants branching out into other jobs, and Lady Edith (played by Laura Carmichael) and Lady Mary both working women. Even Lady Grantham, the wife of Earl of Grantham, secures an occupation.
The show’s popular success has been huge, with audience numbers in Britain close to 12 million for several seasons, dropping only slightly for Seasons 5 and 6; that’s almost 20 percent of the population. But “Downton Abbey” came in for frequent critical drubbings from British reviewers, who noted with disappointment a shift into soap opera melodrama. Reviewing the opening of the final season, which begins with a fox hunt, in The Telegraph, Ceri Radford wrote: “I felt nostalgia of a different kind at play, too, in the longing for another distant era: namely 2010, when the first and best series of ‘Downton’ aired. No installment has quite measured up since.” And yet, she noted, “these characters still manage to catch and compel, even if you know that rationally, the whole dramatic edifice is less stone abbey, more house of cards.” (The series finished with a two-hour special on Christmas Day in Britain.)