The third season of Downton Abbey, the smash hit British-American period drama television series, will premiere on PBS this Sunday.
The British TV show, which follows the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants during the early 20th century, has won over a huge American audience. Last January, 6.3 million viewers tuned in for the second season premiere on Downton, which was the second most-watched program at 9 PM on Super Bowl Sunday. The perennial U.S. obsession with English high society and Downton’s addictive characters and storyline underlie the popularity of the TV show.
The U.S. has long been devoted Anglophiles, especially when it comes to British high society. Downton follows the pattern of success set by Upstairs, Downstairs, another drama about the British aristocracy, as well as other cultural representations of English high-society such as Jane Austen novels.
Certainly Americans love the showy display of British grandeur. Period costumes and wealthy European estates are eye candy for us U.S. viewers, who have comparatively little old-money aristocracy in our own history. The escapism provided by a romanticized view of the English upper classes and wealth removed in time and space can be irresistible during hard economic times.
But Downton has won over audiences with its heart and compelling story. The costumes and historical backdrop add to the grandiosity of the show, but it draws strength not as a social portrait but more as a well-crafted story about compelling characters. Eldest daughter Mary is a strong-willed, self-centered, cold, yet secretly compassionate young woman who grapples with her personal desires and family obligations; Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith, is the hilariously snarky grandmother concerned primarily with social status and wealth, but who reveals a romantic and sensitive side in private; O’Brien, one of the maids, is ambiguous about her loyalties and willingness to manipulate others. History — the Great War, the fall of traditional European society, the technology of modernity, new money versus old money — is more of a passing comment than a central theme.
There is no class conflict between the Crawleys and their servants. So Downton is not so much about an aristocratic family adjusting to the march of the 20th century, as little about the Downton lifestyle is ever actually challenged. History affects the Crawleys only incidentally. The meat of the drama is in the main characters and their private trials, such as Matthew's and Mary's love story and Bates' mysterious past are two persistent story lines. Side-stories, such as Sybil’s rebellion, may reveal more about social turbulence based in class and gender.
The fast pace and intrigue of the script — sex scandals, hidden family secrets — give it the addictive quality of a soap opera. Downton attracts a much younger audience than normal period dramas. Not only young women in their twenties and thirties, but also “men and even younger kids still in school” watch the show. Whether in television or on the internet, younger generations demand instant gratification. Downton provides that through killer one-liners and action-packed drama.
The U.S. will always yearn for the luxurious escapism of European period dramas. Downton has made them even more popular with its rich characters and soap opera-esque plot.