For those of you still unfamiliar with Downton Abbey, I’d first advise you to emerge from whatever rock you’ve been living under. Then, think stone manors in the pristine British countryside. Think well-dressed ladies in fancy frocks, afternoon tea-sipping, and aristocratic gentlemen donning red coats before a casual afternoon foxhunt. Think butlers standing erect in pristine uniforms and plain maids dusting the fireplaces of lavish ballrooms. Combine these images of post-Victorian elitism with your typical soap opera absurdities – suspenseful plot lines, scheming villains and tragic forbidden romances–and, apparently, what results is a US TV cult phenomenon. Downton actually came in ahead of Mad Men and Modern Family as the most critically acclaimed television show of 2011. Blimey.
It baffles me that the same millions of Americans who tune into the Superbowl whilst chowing down on barbecue wings are also enthralled by and obsessed with a show full of servants’ squabbles and upper class snobbery. Understandably, this genre of period drama is popular with British audiences – servants and country houses are a staple to the daily TV diet in England the same way that Snooki and her Jersey Shore shenanigans are to US viewers. For example, my own personal taste for period dramas was cultivated at a young age by my very prim and proper English grandmother, who is actually the one who introduced me to Downton when it first aired on the BBC. (I’m unashamed to say that this past Christmas day spent in Boston found me desperately trawling through MegaVideo links to get my hands on the double-length holiday special that aired a few hours before across the pond.)
Now well into its second season, Downton Abbey continues to enjoy huge success in the US. I’ve found myself pondering, (perhaps more than is either normal or healthy) how this Downton hysteria be explained. A New York Times article recently suggested that the show’s portrayal of an idealized interdependent relationship between the upper classes and their servants speaks to the current Occupy Wall Street culture and fixation upon class differences. Others point out that, in these modern days of tweets and tech-dependency, TV viewers yearn for a lost era of letter writing, real family dinners, and long walks in the countryside. These theories sound reasonable, but are still not convincing.
From the moment the opening credits roll, luxurious piano overtones fill your ears and your eyes feast upon the turrets and green lawns of Downton Abbey, home of the illustrious Crawleys. This is certainly not your average TV family. The complex mess of personal relationships, inheritances, economic troubles, marriage arrangements and other such aristocratic family drama actually takes some serious concentration to wrap your head around. Not to mention all the names involved. Here’s just a brief taster: The head honcho of the house is Earl of Grantham, aka Robert, who is in a bit of a pickle because the entail to his estate requires a male heir, and he has only three daughters. Robert is married to an American, The Right Honorable Cora Crawley, aka the Countess of Grantham, whose fortune saved Downton when it was at the brink of financial ruin. When Robert’s next-closest male heir, Mr. Matthew Crawley, shows up on the scene, he threatens to take both Downton the house itself and the Countess’s entire fortune–that is, unless Robert’s eldest daughter Lady Mary can find a new suitor to replace her fiancée who recently died aboard the sinking Titanic. Confused yet? This is just episode one.
The plot lines from episode to episode range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The end of one particularly memorable first season episode finds the wife of the Earl, her daughter the eligible Lady Mary, and one of the maids hefting the dead body of a Turkish diplomat down the hall in the middle of the night. How exactly did he die? No one can be sure, but it happened right before he was about to have some seriously scandalous sex.
The Crawleys themselves are only the tip of the iceberg. The other focus of the show is the motley crew of servants who facilitate (and sometimes overlap with) the Crawleys’ day-to-day lives, and who also have their own strange system of ranks and titles, in addition to thick regional accents. You can see why this really doesn’t feel like the sort of nightly entertainment your average American would want to tune into every Sunday.
What makes Downton so irresistible is the same inexplicable force that causes women in Texas to throw Royal Wedding parties at 3am, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” to be the go-to favorite novel of most single women over the age of 30, and hundreds of seemingly sane people to drive down to the local tattoo parlor and spend their hard-earned wages to get lightning bolts inked onto their foreheads. (Whatever you do, don’t Google “Harry Potter tattoos,” Just don’t do it.) This weird and wonderful force of nature is modern America’s fascination with the concept of all things ‘British’. I can’t say I’ll ever fully understand this phenomenon. But it’s clear that the aristocratic accents, fancy china tea sets, and corset-bound ladies in bonnets and gowns that fill every episode of Downton Abbey are simply too much for the collective US imagination to resist. Why else would 6 million viewers care about characters who would rather die than mistake a Duke for an Earl, or wear the wrong type of top hat to a dinner party?
I suppose my inner Brit should be oddly flattered.