By Adam Sandel
If you haven’t yet viewed Downton Abbey, the Edwardian world of the noble Crawley family and their army of servants – pull on your waistcoat and get on with it. Season One is available on Netflix and episodes of Season Two (which began airing on January 8) can be downloaded at pbs.org. It is the most successful PBS series in decades – and the most wildly popular television show in British history.
Created by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) the show won six Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe for best mini-series, due in large part to its fine writing and stellar cast.
Each performance is multi-layered, from the doe-eyed scullery maid Daisy to the brilliant Maggie Smith, who rings every drop of humor from each syllable as the imperious Dowager Countess.
While most of the characters display a depth of conscience and nobility rarely seen in mainstream television, Rob James-Collier as the secretly gay footman Thomas is bracingly amoral.
When queer television characters were scarce, a gay bad guy might have triggered cries of negative stereotypes. But amid the sea of out, proud, sympathetic characters from Modern Family to Glee, there’s now plenty of room for the villainous Thomas.
In Season One, Thomas tries to blackmail a high-born ex-lover; he sets up the virginal Lady Mary for a doozy of a scandal that threatens to destroy the entire family; yet his ruthless attempts to rise from footman to valet in Season One ultimately backfire.
As World War I descends upon the Crawleys and their servants in Season Two, his role as an army medic (and a shocking act of self-mutilation) offers him a chance for revenge on the household when Downton Abbey is transformed into a convalescent facility.
James-Collier was a soap opera heartthrob in Britain before being cast in Downton, and the dark-haired, blue-eyed actor’s handsome face seems to be set in stony discontent.
Part of his discontent reflects a poor boy’s ambition in a society that offers little if no chance to transcend social class. What’s more, his treachery is a dark and twisted by-product of having to cover his sexuality, rooted in his frustration with the straight-laced, class-conscious world in which he lives.
A similar dynamic motivates his partner in crime O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), the scheming spinster ladies maid whose life of service meant no life of her own. Whenever these two take a cigarette break, disaster invariably follows.
The smoke that seems to perpetually emanate from them symbolizes the smoldering resentment of the servant class towards the aristocrats whom they have little choice but to serve.
Breaking Downton News: Shirley MacLaine will join the cast as the wealthy American mother of Elizabeth McGovern’s Cora Crawley when Season Three begins filming next month.
To view recent episodes of Downton Abbey, go here.