The way I see it, there are two types of TV watchers in this world: those who love Downton Abbey and those who haven’t yet started watching it. The fascination with Downton has become a sort-of American cult, with fanpages dedicated to the Crawleys, Twitter wars discussing the latest plot twists, and the welcome resurgence of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. The secret to Downton Abbey‘s success in America may actually give a glimpse inside our collective consciousness, as well as help further appreciation for this downright excellent show.
There’s something to be said for the motherland. After all, Americans fought for independence from Great Britain, only to be completely fascinated by British culture a century and a half later. Because we don’t have aristocracy in our country — at least, no formal aristocracy — it’s only natural that we’re glued to the TV when Downton Abbey is on. It paints a picture of a foreign world in which birth is everything — the complete opposite of the American ideal of wealth being anyone’s game. Naturally, we’re curious. It’s a completely different way of life, which makes it all the easier to romanticize, especially in terms of relationships.
Americans are, for the most part, fairly democratic. In a country where anyone can strike it big and an ordinary family can score a reality TV deal and become insta-stars, we like the very notion of a level playing field. When we see Lord Crawley taking an interest in his servants or Mary deferring to Carson, it appeals to this mindset. While Lord Crawley is sometimes — especially during the latest season — written as stodgy and resistant to change in a modern world, his wandering eye toward the staff has an almost modern quality in the sense it diminishes the lines between aristocracy and service.
Fashion and Excess
When it comes to costume design, Downton Abbey goes above and beyond the typical period piece. Perhaps that’s because much of the show — and much of aristocracy — revolves around getting dressing to impress. The number of wardrobe changes, along with the succulent food, glittering parties, and the idea that money exists but is never seen is appealing to Americans, who worship excess in all its forms. The set and costume designs are brilliantly done and are almost as addictive as the juicy plot lines.
One contributor to Downton Abbey‘s success is the way the characters are written. Many scripted television shows, particularly those written and produced in the U.S., draw clear lines between the good guys and the bad guys. We know which side to take from early on in each series. In Downton Abbey, however, each character is written with both positive and negative qualities. Thomas Barrow, for instance, is reprehensibly conniving, yet throws himself at the mercy of bandits to save a friend. Or, consider “good guy” Mr. Bates, who becomes violent during his prison stay. There are no clear lines drawn between who is good and who is bad or whether we should root for the upstairs or the downstairs. Each character is complicated enough to be easy to relate to, which keeps us glued to the screen.
Let’s face it: A lot of American TV programming isn’t fit to view as a family. You’d hardly sit down with your 15-year-old to watch an episode of Sons of Anarchy or tune into True Blood with your grandma. But Downton Abbey manages to span entire age groups so that stay-at-home moms, teens, grown men, and seniors are all tuning in, perhaps accounting for the 7.9 million who watched the season three premiere of the show. Sure, there’s sex and gore on Downton Abbey, but it’s done in a tasteful and oh-so-British way. It happens, but there’s little muss and fuss, which means fewer embarrassing moments when watching with the fam.
Now that season three has wrapped up, there’s still no end in sight for the Downton Abbey series. With changing characters and new developments, Americans are poised and ready to watch season four.
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