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This is a guest post by Inez Ponce de Leon.

TV and cinema have both attempted to portray the upstairs-downstairs view of an English country seat: upstairs are the lords and ladies, oblivious to the world’s hardships; downstairs are the maids and footmen, alienated from their work and living from day to day. From North and South to Cranford, from Victorian writers to historical fiction novelists, the contrast of lives is an irresistible source of conflict, love, and the challenges posed to the human spirit.

Downton Abbey is a new, though not so fresh, but nevertheless beautiful take on the upstairs-downstairs, pre-World War II Britain genre.

Britain is already changing slowly, and one day, the great divide between master and servant will be no more. In its first season, this 7-episode, 7-hour British series takes on the issues of women’s rights, the class divide, and marriage, among many others.

At the center of the story is Downton Abbey, a vast estate out in the country, where Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) holds his seat. His wife, the Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) and he are parents to three daughters, Mary (played by an almost ethereal Michelle Dockery), Edith (portrayed to irritating, but pitiful accuracy by Laura Carmichael), and Sybil (whose impetuous shoes are filled by the gentle Jessica Brown Findlay). Rounding out the upstairs cast is Maggie Smith, who plays the feisty Dowager Countess, Lord Grantham’s mother.

Downstairs, the servants are led by the noble, exacting butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and the head of household Mrs. Hughs (Phyllis Logan). There is a large cast of maids, footmen, and a crippled valet, Mr. Bates (played charmingly and wonderfully by a subtle Brendan Coyle). The conflict is complicated, not to mention intriguing, as a footman tries to impress a scullery maid, another footman is too ambitious for his own good, and the gentle valet falls in love with the head housemaid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt).

Downton Abbey opens with the sinking of the Titanic, carrying with it the last known heirs of Downton Abbey. Because Lord Grantham has no sons, he is at a loss as to what he must do to keep the estate within the family. He finds a distant relative, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a solicitor in Manchester. Matthew brings with him ideas from the city and a rapidly changing world, which leads to changes in Downton Abbey – some of them good, others filled with conflict that make Downton Abbey a delicious series to follow.

The costumes and sets are beautiful to behold, although the downstairs setting might require a bit more muddying up, as it seems a very sanitized version of what research says is dirty and unsanitary. The cinematography does justice to the vastness of the estate, for the greater part, but the editing does feel a bit abrupt and out of place in some scenes. For instance, some dialogue sciences feature two characters at close range; but after a cut, the camera is high above them; only to descend back to close range after yet another cut.

The writing is crisp as well, with the wit favoring Maggie Smith, the stern lady’s maid O’brien (Siobhan Finneran), and even Matthew’s mother (Penelope Wilton). That being said, the character build-up is gradual, well-paced, and consistent all throughout. From beginning to end, we witness the growth of a grieving, secret-ridden Lady Mary; a gentle, but uneasy Anna; a Dowager Countess fighting to hold on to everything she knows to be true and right in the world; even a Matthew who is doing his best to stay grounded without losing himself in the airs of nobility.

The season finale is jaw-dropping, as the country pushes closer to war, and as everything changes slowly in the midst of a disappearing class divide.

Although the series isn’t completely different from other upstairs-downstairs series in Britain, it still offers a new and lovingly-shot take on the conflicts and stories that abound. Watch Downton Abbey for its beautiful sets and its writing, for its consistent acting that is spellbinding and heart-wrenching. If you’re a fan of British series and history, this one’s for you.

Inez Ponce de Leon is a writer, belly dancer, and researcher – and lots more in between. She loves to write on a wide variety of topics, including watching movies, writing novels, reading Procera AVH reviews, belly dancing, appreciating culture, and understanding science.