Why ‘Downton Abbey’ is history’s gayest British export

“You mean, DownTON Abbey,” he replied, looking over his glasses like I’d just confused the Minogue sisters. “It’s about a rich British family. That’s all I know.”

Wondering what the fuss was about, we waded through the first episode with a little help from Wikipedia.

A short summary revealed that the dozen or so characters we were introduced to were wrapped up in a tangled web of drama having to do with the fictitious Crawley family left in white-people peril after the intended heir to the family fortune (and the property that collectively makes up Downton Abbey) was killed on the Titanic.

Some 45-minutes later, we were talking to each other in crappy British accents, totally hooked on what would happen next. Like, what do you mean this random third cousin from town is going to be the next heir? Why is this well-dressed, nearly one-legged butler so insistent on working for this family? How does Maggie Smith stay so likable and bitchy at the same time?

All the way through both seasons (the second is available through an instant watching system via Amazon.com) and a not-to-be-missed Christmas special, we’re chomping on a rainbow bit for more.

I’m not the kind of guy who falls for popular dramas. Most of the time. I’ve watched several series on Netflix that have caught my attention, and while “Mad Men” had me for a while, nothing quite captivates like all this particularly brand of crazy people with too much money and time on their hands.

If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon, here’s why “Dowton Abbey” is history’s gayest British import.

The Costumes

Who doesn’t love a good period piece? The costumes alone seem worthy of an American Emmy. From the help dressed in dreary, but functional basement-chic service attire to the incredibly elaborate frocks and hats worn by their owners (I mean, the servants aren’t slaves, but a little research reveals that the house workers were essentially treated as such), there’s never a dull wardrobe moment.

Sorry ladies, it looks like corsets are back, but I’m not sure where you can find a lady’s maid to help you get in them.

The Gay Storyline

Yes, it’s over almost as soon as it begins, but more importantly, our only gay cast member is a major villain throughout. Thomas Barrow (played by the handsome Rob James-Collier), is a diabolical schemer who will stop at nothing to become a valet (which is British for man-bitch). Even better, his fag-capital-H-A-G, Ms. O’Brien, is almost worse—she can’t move any further up the servant ladder, but she’s set on making everyone’s life about as miserable as her own.

The only thing that hits their lips is gossip, treachery and cigarettes.

Maggie Smith

She’s been old as long as I’ve been alive, and she just gets better at it. Smith plays the matriarch of the Grantham family—the mother of Lord Grantham who’s known by most as the Dowager Countess. She lives in her own house on the family land, but you wouldn’t know it by how often she shows up to mettle in the nuclear family’s business.

She’s seen everything, knows everything and can manipulate any family member into doing about anything she wants. She plays an extraordinary hand in who marries who, who works for whom and generally how good everyone’s day is going to pass.

She fears vapors from electric light bulbs, clutches pearls at the thought of pantaloons and has no idea what a weekend is because she’s never worked a day in her life.

If it peaks your interest, check out this montage of “Sh!t the Dowager Countess Says.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bs5_E1J_9hY It’s not going to spoil anything but Maggie Smith’s best lines.

The Drama

The level of shenanigans going on in this mansion-cum-castle is mind-blowing. There are about 20 people to keep track of, and that’s not counting the folks who show up to screw things up along the way.

If you’ve seen the film “Gosford Park,” think of “Downton Abbey” as essentiality the same but on a mix of steroids and expensive liquor.

In all honesty, you need two flow charts to keep everyone straight: one for the family and one for the hierarchy of servants keeping the house in perfect shape.

Among the most dramatic (but spoiler-free) moments: death by sex, the Spanish flu, surprise pregnancy, mysterious/dead relatives back from the grave, ex-wife drama, secret affairs, World War I, a medical miracle, blackmail, conscientious objector, suicide or murder, and Maggie Smith, every time she comes on screen.

My co-worker laughed, “But I can’t understand everything they’re saying with those accents.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied. “Someone always in the next room listening, so it’s bound to come up again.”

Don’t miss the boat to “Downton Abbey.” You can stream the first season on Netflix. The second season, which wrapped up Sunday, can be seen on Amazon.com’s streaming service.

Now that I’m done with “Downton Abbey” (until season three begins), what should I watch next?

Top photo: Maggie Smith plays the Countess of Grantham in the BBC’s new American import “Downtown Abbey.” (Photo via www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/downtonabbey/)