Although the title might imply so, with respect to those who haven’t seen it yet there are no spoilers of the Downton Abbey finale in this piece. But, as the Abbey’s doors close for the last time, there’s just something I can’t wrap my head around.
Why are Americans so enamored with English TV shows – particularly this one? Laced with everything from world war and the introduction of electric lights, to pig farms and car racing, this period drama totally won its timeslot and the loyalty of its audience.
For those unfamiliar with the show here’s a little history. It started, at least on United States television, in January of 2011. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) series, Masterpiece, once known more commonly as Masterpiece Theater, began airing a British series called, “Downton Abbey.”
Beginning the story with a member of the family having gone down with the Titanic, Downton followed the inner workings of a “typical” aristocratic family and their servants in a more elaborate take on the old, “Upstairs, Downstairs,” series, which also came to America by way of the BBC.
For five seasons, or “series,” as they’re called across the pond, viewers are treated to verbal nibblets from the out of touch, “Granny,” played by Maggie Smith, as she asks, “What is a weekend.” And, of course, who can forget the butlerish protestations from Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) against anything modern.
Downton became an instant success in America, as it had in England. Even a character called, “Shrimpie,” wasn’t campy enough to deter U.S. viewers, who just seemed to take it in stride as another English quirk, like omitting articles in spoken language, like “the.”
Personally, it was hard getting into the show without constantly thinking, “What do these people do for a living,” or, “Do they really just hang around in that big house and change clothes a half dozen times a day, eat rich food and drink tea?”
They rarely leave the house – scratch that, “castle” – but don’t even raise their own children or lift a finger to care for themselves. I just didn’t get it. Truth be told, I still don’t. But, I managed to let it go long enough to enjoy the story.
Of course, there is still the realization that the man of the house, Lord Grantham, brilliantly portrayed by Hugh Boneville, would seem to be the single worst money manager in the history of England. The Downton estate, long held family property likely stolen from peasants at some point, is constantly in financial peril. But they just let him continue to “manage” things while he sits around nursing an ulcer and hoping his daughters will marry rich so he can live high on the hog one more year.
Even more puzzling, to me anyway, is the show’s popularity on PBS. The PBS viewer tends to be lower income (33 percent under $15,000 annually), non-white, more liberally minded, and possess lower education than one might expect. In fact, according to Nielsen, 62-percent of PBS viewers have only a high school diploma or less.
It’s hard to imagine how a show that follows the idle, over privileged lives of snobby uber-rich bluebloods would sit well with those always railing against the 1-percent. And yet, it became incredibly popular, even winning several Emmy and Golden Globe awards here in the states.
This week marked the end of Downton and it went out with all character arcs neatly tied into a bow and delivered up to viewers on, what else, a silver platter. Packed away are the dinner tails, fine crystal, and an amazing collection of antique cars as Mrs. Patmore, Daisy, the Bates’, and all the lords and ladies drift into rerun heaven. That is until just enough time has passed for producers to take advantage of another cash cow – the reunion miniseries.
However it managed the feat, Downton Abbey is the single most successful program to ever come out of England, with the possible exception of Dr. Who. If you’re late to tea and missed out on all the drama at the Abbey, you can still catch up with the show on DVD and through streaming services like Netflix and Acorn.