Why “Downton Abbey”? Why should a BBC-produced period drama, that details the comings and goings of an aristocratic early 20th century British family and their countless servants, be such a massive hit? Why on earth would a show on PBS, of all channels, be one of the top trending topics on Twitter? Why would anyone, in a post Occupy world, want to watch a bunch of incredibly wealthy members of the landed gentry have their maids and valets brush lint off their jackets? There’s no nudity, vampires, recognizable actors or choreographed musical numbers, and the most violent thing that happens are a handful of scenes set in the trenches during World War I. Going by the things that typically get American audiences going, on the surface, “Downton Abbey” would appear to be as entertaining as watching the laundry go round.
But as the Dowager Countess might say: good heavens, my dears, it most certainly is not. It is, in fact, an utterly riveting look into the private lives of people from both ends of the economic and social divide. It shows their motivations both good and bad, their fears and their hopes, the historical context against which they’re set, and their totally fabulous clothes (I want Lady Sybil’s silk pantsuit from season one like, so bad, OMG). It’s a show that you’d never expect to like, and that’s why it’s such a distinct, almost guilty pleasure. There’s nothing else like it on TV.
Because, let’s face it, network television has all but abandoned well-written, well-produced drama. Sure, people tell me “The Good Wife” and “Parenthood” are allright, but I’ve yet to be convinced of that. “Grey’s Anatomy” is a soap opera, and not in a good way. Crime dramas will always have an audience, but “Law & Order” isn’t exactly deep, is it? The probing primetime drama is now the province of cable, like AMC, FX and HBO, ever since “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” raised the bar so high no network could reach it, with their draconian censorship issues and constant commercial breaks. “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” and “Dexter” all blow anything on network TV out of the water. And “Downton Abbey,” with its lush art direction, carefully crafted characters and epic story arcs, belongs right alongside those aforementioned cable series. But it’s on network – PBS, which, with any luck, will take the success of “Downton” as a sign that they too can join the ranks of channels that offer smart TV for adults.
And oh, the glorious pathos. Anna and Bates, with their slow-burning romance that eventually develops into a fire. Sybil’s budding disenchantment with the status quo for society women. The love-to-hate-them duo of Mrs. O’Brien and Thomas — why exactly are they such co-conspirators? Carson and Mrs. Hughes, who dole out discipline and sympathy in equal doses. Lord Grantham, who’s stoic yet kind outer shell must start to crack soon, with all the added pressure of the war. Lady Mary and Matthew, whose now forbidden love is being stretched to almost agonizing lengths. And the Dowager Countess, who’s daily nastygrams are like little flowers amid the earnest sufferings of those around her. Though you know, at heart, she’s not such a bad old broad.
Those are just some of the major characters; there are plenty more from both the servant’s quarters and from the dining room. It may seem hard to keep track of, but once you start, you simply cannot stop. And no, it’s not just for girls. It’s for everyone. I defy any male with any amount of interest in good TV to watch the first two episodes and not be sucked in. Don’t think it’s just pretty dresses and people gasping at what appear to be incredibly minor indiscretions. It goes way beyond that.
And what of it being such a hit in the U.S., where such inherently, almost religiously British programs aren’t exactly at the top of the heap, demand-wise? Well, it just shows that Yanks and Brits aren’t really all that different. And that no one should underestimate the ability of the American public to surprise. And that good writing that’s well-acted is still something that all TV channels – network or not – should strive to broadcast.