Perhaps you’ve heard you’re supposed to be watching Downton Abbey. The British period drama, which follows the tumultuous lives of the Crawley family and their servants living classic manor life in the Yorkshire countryside in the early 1900s … wait! Come back!
Against all odds Downton Abbey has become a critically acclaimed and commercially viable phenomenon here in the States, where the cultural literati usually endorse shows with more game than typically offered by Masterpiece.
Back to the explanation, Downton—or Downtown, as far too many of us yanks often mistakenly read, then repeat—first aired on ITV in the U.K. in 2010 and in the U.S. on PBS last January. It begins in the spring of 1912, just after the sinking of the Titanic, leaves off just as World War I has broken out, and when it returns for season two this Sunday on PBS, picks up a few years later. Here are five reasons this show is something far more special than the average foggy-lensed period schlock you’re used to.
The problem with costume dramas has never been the setting. Shot mostly at Highclere Castle in Berkshire, U.K., the grand Elizabethan mansion set on elegantly manicured lawns is everything you want in a period piece, even if you swear you don’t want a period piece at all. But it also has a kind of gothic spookiness, which Stanley Kubrick picked up on when he chose to shoot Eyes Wide Shut here—it’s one of the only other times the house has been documented on film. Everything else, from interior mustiness of the servants’ underground quarters to the orgiastic panning over the three daughters’ selection of frocks and jewels to head of house Lord Grantham’s delicate snuff boxes—is lovingly curated and shot, as if grown-ups had been gifted millions of dollars to build their own large-scale doll house. Matthew Weiner has erotic dreams about this kind of thing. Then there’s the cast. The women of Downton have already been featured in Vogue and the men, from the brooding ill-faded bad boy Kemal Pamuk (Theo James) to the imperious blue-eyed, ruddy-cheeked Cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), are so damn foxy.
Yes, the dude who wrote Downton Abbey (the inimitable British writer/actor/producer/novelist Julian Fellowes) wrote Gosford Park, but he also polished the screenplay for undeniably classless Jolie/Depp vehicle The Tourist. Downton Abbey features a scheming bisexual pretty boy footman, Kardashian-worthy sisterly infighting, an aristocratic girl’s crush on the family’s Irish socialist chauffer, a visiting Turkish royal murdered after trysting with the lord of the manor’s marriageable daughter, a scorned morally compromised ladie’s maid with potentially homicidal tendencies. Downton Abbey is as much Dallas or Gossip Girl as it is Upstairs Downstairs.
This is a show about society’s investment in class distinctions, about the evolution of the relationship between the 1% and the 99% during a time of social upheaval instigated by political uncertainty and global violence. Sound familiar?
In tandem with larger themes regarding shifting mores of class distinction is the emerging feminism of Edwardian women. Lady Grantham is a rich American whom the Lord married for her money, which saved his estate from falling into disrepair, and preserved their dying way of life for at least one more generation. But the couple, who represent the best side of arranged marriages, as they are very much in love, produced no male heir. Money that originally belonged to Lady Grantham now belongs to her husband’s estate, which her daughters can’t inherit. This is blue-blooded high society to the extreme, but watching the Lord and Lady dangle their eldest daughter like bait on a hook to lure in a litany of marriageable men just so they can save their family and preserve their way of life reveals with starkness the socially indoctrinated sexism of the era. And the whipsmart sniping about all this by the women of the house, especially the imperious Dowager Countess of Grantham, the Lord’s mother, played by the iconic Maggie Smith, shows that this system will not stand for long.
When PBS picked up Downton Abbey it seemed like they were last to the party. After HBO introduced the new era of television 15 years ago, every other network with means, from Showtime to FX to AMC, has attempted and often succeeded in co-opting the HBO format. What could PBS bring that all those other networks haven’t thought of over the last decade? But PBS went with a show that’s sexier, smarmier, and pulpier than its usually formatting set in a world that’s still very familiar to its core viewership. Thirteen years after The Sopranos first premiered, the American viewership is primed to consume complex, serialized narrative storytelling, even if it takes place in a drawing room. Five million viewers a week tuned in to season one, a vast uptick from Masterpiece’s usual rate, and the number of women ages 25-54 who watched is up 56%. Still another million people or so streamed the show in the months since it originally aired. It’s not just anglophiles and Emmy voters who are watching this, it’s everyone else too.