The premise of Downton Abbey is not one that would seem to matter much to Americans. The show, which just completed its third season, centers on a family of blue-blooded English nobles living during the Edwardian and WWI eras. Their household includes a full staff of servants, which are also explored well as characters. But none of this really relates to the lives of typical Americans. So why is the show so popular?
Part of it is the complexity: of the characters, of their lives, and of the times. No character is perfect or easily definable as “good” or “bad.” There are flaws and redeeming points in every main character, and as much as one might like to, it’s hard to hate any one of them for long. Some might be selfish or seem uncaring, but there’s always a reason behind that as well. When watching Downton Abbey, it’s easy to imagine that these were real people leading real lives at one point, and sometimes it’s hard to remember that they’re not.
Downton Abbey also doesn’t feel like it has a political statement to make; rather, it takes an objective look at the times and provides a diverse set of characters with differing opinions on matters like women’s rights, the Irish rebellion, entitlement, marrying for love versus status, and so on.
The idea that the rich are always nasty and presumptuous and the poor are always hard working and good hearted is put to rest with the full array of characters as well. It’s not that Downton’s characters either completely fit the stereotypes or fall totally outside them; it’s that they are almost all somewhere in the middle.
And though Downton’s storyline at a glance might seem a bit dusty for those of us in the 21st Century, it’s strangely compelling. It hits on universal truths, and it’s easy for viewers to sympathize or empathize with the core of the issues that come up. We may not have been in that exact situation, but many of us have experienced our own versions.
Downton Abbey was created by Julian Fellowes and co-produced by Carnival Films and Masterpiece. It was originally shown in the UK on ITV and later came to the United States through PBS. WNET Thirteen in Newark, New Jersey, is one of the primary stations of PBS in the United States. A non-commercial educational public television station, WNET is under the leadership of a board of trustees, which includes members like Tom Uger, James Tisch, Ann Tenenbaum and Lisa Caputo.