Like William and Kate (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) and most Americans, my wife Diane and I have found ourselves caught up in “Downton Abbey” mania.
We have just caught up on season two, so that we can join with the rest of the country in watching season three of the popular British television series on PBS. We enjoyed the first season, but stopped watching after the first episode or so of the second season, when the show’s plot twists became too nerve-racking to tolerate.
Unless you have been wrongly imprisoned, like Lord Grantham’s valet Mr. Bates, you probably already know that “Downton Abbey” is a period British television show that depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in post-Edwardian England. For the most part, the action is set in the fictional country estate of Downton Abbey, which is actually Highclere Castle, the residence of the current Countess of Carnarvon.
In the midst of the NFL playoff season, one of the show’s recent advertisements rings true when it says, “There are football widows and there are Downton widowers.” Although, I personally believe that men are just as vulnerable to these soap opera plots as women — just read any comic book series.
Doni M. Wilson, an associate professor of English at Houston Baptist University, has called “Downton Abbey” “the delicious addiction” and admits to being an unrepentant “Downton addict.” Wilson, however, offers five rationalizations for her addiction to this guilty pleasure.
1. She says there is no way to get enough of Maggie Smith, who plays the snarky, sharp-tongued, but ultimately sympathetic dowager countess; 2. She asserts that although life is unfair, Downton displays” a healthy dose of justice,” as a variety of miscreants eventually get their comeuppance to the viewer’s delight; 3. Wilson believes the show can help viewers understand realism, as real life events are weaved into the often implausible plot lines, such as the sinking of the Titanic, the start of World War I and the Spanish Influenza Epidemic; 4. The show’s attention to detail has a transporting effect, which can make you feel like you’re actually there. I’ll admit that I have fallen asleep watching the show and woke up thinking I should summon the butler Mr. Carson to bring me a pot of Earl Grey tea. And finally, 5. You not only get to watch it, but you can also pursue your compulsion by watching shows about the show, reading about it and wasting a great deal of your time on various social media outlets dedicated to it.
But what is the show’s great appeal, especially to Americans?
Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, writes that most have explained it by saying that “Americans love a period drama, and they dote on the British aristocracy.” The British series drew 5.4 million viewers for its second season finale and is now one of the most watched television programs in the world. The linchpin of the series is, of course, the relationships and interactions between the aristocrats and the servants.
Mills points to the widespread popularity of the similar 1970s British television series “Upstairs Downstairs,” which also was shown on PBS, and movies such as “Gosford Park,” which was written by “Downton” creator, Julian Fellowes. This trend can also be seen in the well received 1981 television miniseries “Brideshead Revisited” as well as in the resurgent interest in Jane Austen’s work over the pasts several years.
According to Mills, besides brilliant acting and writing, there is another deeper explanation for the success of “Downton Abbey” — its compassion. Mills believes that this compassion is especially evident in Hugh Bonneville’s nuanced portrayal of Robert, The earl of Grantham, the patriarch of Downton.
Despite his temper and full acceptance of a life of privilege, Mills says, “The earl is everything so many of today’s get-tough-with-the-poor politicians are not. His actions [are] governed by his belief in an unstated social contract …”
At one point, he intimates that the rich have a moral obligation to employ servants, if only to provide employment. In this respect the earl is the polar opposite of the typical British aristocrat of the time, who was, at best, totally indifferent to the household servants plight, according to contemporary accounts, such as Margaret Powell’s memoir “Below Stairs.”
As the Occupy Wall Street Movement and last presidential election demonstrate, class conflicts are alive and well in America and perhaps the notion of a warm-hearted aristocrat, such as the earl is welcome news. President Obama’s successful campaign suggests that a majority of America still see value in the idea of a “social contract.”
Despite the inherent American distaste for social class distinction, Mills points out that this has not dampened our affection for homegrown aristocrats, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hyde Park may not exactly be an American Downton Abbey, but Roosevelt’s second inaugural address captures the essence of the nature of the social contract between the haves and have-nots, when he said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
Diane and I hope that we will be able to start watching season three this week, so that we can hold our heads up when other people start talking about the new season.
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., resides in Georgeton Abbey, aka Georgetown, and is the CEO of LifeSpring, the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com