Addictive series full of distinct characters getting into overblown soap-opera situations. It concerns changing social structure in the early 1900’s – specifically, bookended by the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912 and the start of WWI (for Britain) in August 1914 – then season two takes us to the end of the war. An extremely busy series with excellent writing and acting and no wasted time.
The Earl Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville, star of Asylum) is in charge of the “abbey” (mansion? I see no monks).
His American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern of Once Upon a Time in America and The House of Mirth) provided all the family’s monetary wealth, has scary eyes.
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, who played the murdered decoy-Cate Blanchett in Hanna) is the oldest daughter who should be married by now, but drives away all suitors except a Turkish diplomat, who dies in her bed provoking hushed scandal. She’s supposed to hook up with Matthew in order to keep the fortune in the family, but they drive each other away until the end of the post-s2 Christmas special.
Lady Sybil (Jessica Findlay) is the kinda nice middle daughter who turns political, gets excited about equal rights for women, and finally runs off to Scotland or someplace to marry the chauffeur.
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is the youngest daughter, defined mainly by her fights with Mary, which quickly escalate (Mary scares off her would-be-fiancee, Edith writes to the Turkish embassy explaining how their diplomat died). She also has a wartime fling with a neighboring farmer.
The Dowager Countess (the great Maggie Smith), Crawley’s mom, hangs around to provide the official old-world upper-class perspective on everything. She grudgingly agrees to some of the major changes and improprieties, thus staying a lovably wonderful character instead of an increasingly out-of-touch old sourpuss.
Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) is a distant cousin who becomes heir to Downton after a nearer cousin dies on the Titanic. He moves his law practice into town to familiarise himself with his future estate, is being set up to marry Mary, but instead gets engaged to Lavinia. He’s injured in WWI in the same blast that mortally wounds William, and will never walk again. But of course, he walks again.
Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton, Shaun of the Dead‘s mother, also in Match Point) is Matthew’s mom, a contentious nurse who takes over the house when it becomes a recovery home for wounded soldiers during the war.
Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle) is the beloved fiancee of Matthew, who is too perfect to ever leave him or do anything wrong, so instead she’s killed off by Spanish Influenza.
Mr. Carson, head butler (Dennis Potter regular Jim Carter), is the servant equivalent of Maggie Smith – knows exactly his place, and everyone else’s.
Mrs. Hughes, head housekeeper (Phyllis Logan, star of Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies) is a benevolent leader and problem-solver, like a female Carson but friendlier.
Mr. Bates, Crawley’s valet (Brendan Coyle of an upcoming, annoying-looking Poe adaptation/bio-pic) and servant during the Boer War (1900-ish), is hired and allowed to stay despite his controversial leg injury. He and Anna fall in love, but Bates is secretly married, and after his wife takes all his money and still won’t agree to a divorce, Bates possibly kills her. But we’ll see in season 3.
Ms. O’Brien, head maid (Siobhan Finneran of the Andrew Garfield starmaker Boy A) is evil and resentful, always scheming with Thomas, causes Cora’s miscarriage.
Thomas, first footman (Rob James-Collier), is possibly even more evil, also a closeted homosexual. Coincidence? He gets out of the war by arranging a hand injury, A Very Long Engagement-style, loses his fortune in a black-market scam, then achieves his long-held goal of taking Bates’s job as valet.
William, second footman (Thomas Howes), is a hapless, bullied fellow, lovestruck for Daisy.
Anna, head maid (Joanne Froggatt of an upcoming movie with description “a teenage boy’s descent into the dangerous world of the Internet”), is Bates’s sweetheart.
Gwen, maid (Rose Leslie), is learning to type so she can leave service and hold a proper job, secretly assisted by Sybil.
Ethel (Amy Nuttall) is the s2 replacement for Gwen. Even more of a free-spirited, liberated woman than her predecessor, she gets knocked up by a hospital guest and leaves the house in shame. Good, I was sick of her.
Mrs. Patmore, cook (Lesley Nicol), is losing her sight until the family sends her off for cataract surgery – spends the next ten episodes berating Daisy.
Daisy, cook’s assistant (Sophie McShera) is cute, tiny, guilted into marrying William on his death bed from war injuries.
Molesley (Kevin Doyle) is assigned to be Matthew’s servant, keeps almost getting regular plot threads but he’s not quite interesting enough so they get pushed aside.
Branson (Allen Leech) is the commie chauffeur who manages to marry into the family – but never gets invited into the house.
Writer/producer Julian Fellowes was an actor for years, appearing in a Bond movie and bunches of miniseries, also wrote Gosford Park, Vanity Fair, The Young Victoria and a new version of Titanic with Toby Jones.