The Daily Beast has an interesting article about the astounding success of the British TV series Downton Abbey, the story of the wealthy Crawley family and their servants in the early 1900s, which has found a large and loyal following in America as well as in Britain. The show has already won two Emmy Awards in the technical categories, and is up for six more when the main Emmy ceremony airs on Sunday. The first season averaged over 6 million viewers per episode on PBS, which I believe is almost unheard of for a "Masterpiece" period drama.
Personally, I find that the show veers into soap-opera territory a little too often for my taste, but the loving attention to period detail, along with the marvelous Maggie Smith as the crotchety matriarch of the Crawleys, make it worth tuning in. (Besides, the Twitter parties are fun.) And many of my friends, of both the real-life and the online variety, are totally gung-ho about the show and eager for its return to the U.S. in January.
The show's creator, Julian Fellowes, has his own theory about why Downton Abbey is so successful:
“If it had been done in the ‘50s, the family would all have been incredibly gracious and charming and the servants would all have been comedic,” he said. “If it had been done in the ‘90s, the servants would all be gallant and downtrodden and the family would all be horrible, mendacious, slimy, and selfish. But we’ve gone a different way, really. They’re just a group of people who are living in this house and working, and some of them are nice and some of them are less nice, some of them are funny and some of them aren’t, and so on. But there is no automatic division between the two groups in the house.”
There's something in that. But I would add another theory of my own: We want to remember England as it was, not think about it as it is. Who wouldn't rather follow the adventures of a family who, with all their foibles, usually manage to keep that upper lip stiff and keep soldiering on, than read about societal breakdown leading to rioting, and skyrocketing crime rates in general, in modern-day Britain?
For all its faults, Downton Abbey is refreshingly free -- at least so far -- from the sense of self-loathing that seems to permeate much of Britain today, and even leaks into some of its other period shows. Watching the Cold War drama The Hour on BBC America the other day, I saw a young reporter, Freddie, quizzing one Lord Elms about the identity of the mysterious cabal who had killed Lord Elms's daughter:
Freddie: "Who are 'they'?" Lord Elms: "'They' are US!" Me: "Surprise, surprise."
Nostalgia can easily be overdone, and there's no denying that the era of Downton Abbey had some pretty serious flaws of its own. But maybe the longing to remember Britain as it was, before it began tearing itself completely to pieces, is a good sign. Mabye it shows a realization that there were some values that were widely grasped and pursued back then, that are worth trying to recapture.