There is no doubt that Downton Abbey is quite a popular show in America. After several folks recommended it to me, I finally caved. I hadn’t watched any Masterpiece Classic stuff at the time. I since have watched and enjoyed several mini-series like North and South (which features a very feisty Mr. Bates) along with Wuthering Heights. But at the time, the premise of an aristocratic family pre/post WWI didn’t seem to strike a nerve, or even tendon for that matter. I didn’t care. Until my wife and I watched, and were immediately hooked. Gut hooked.
The Season 3 premiere of the World War I-era British costume epic on PBS on Sunday drew 7.9 million total viewers, its highest total yet, according to Nielsen. That figure is four times PBS’ typical nightly average and nearly twice the 4.2 million who showed up for the Season 2 premiere last January.
The question is why? For a show on PBS to draw these kinds of ratings, we have to stop and ask this question. If we are to live lovingly and responsibly within our culture, and probably among neighbors who appreciate this show, we need to ask this question. For any show to garner such viewership, there is usually a reason for its success. Now for shows like Baywatch, or other shows which profit from showing gals in bathing suits, the answer lies very much on the surface. For other shows like Parenthood, the answer is fairly easy: many people still value the traditional marriage and nuclear/extended family unit. But for a show to take us to another century, to another continent, to a life like none of really know, and leave many wanting more, we have to dig much deeper.
So why is Downton Abbey popular and growing in popularity? Is it because people empathize with the characters (and we do)? Yes, but why is there such affinity for these lads and chaps? And even with crazy neurotic and often manipulative lasses?
The earl of Grantham, played with enormous subtlety by Hugh Bonneville, doesn’t look like a democrat or speak like a democrat. When crossed, he even displays an imperious temper. But appearances are deceiving when it comes to Lord Grantham’s character. The earl treats those who work for him with a compassion that goes well beyond noblesse oblige. He regards the World War I deaths of those who once worked on his estate as a family tragedy.
I wouldn’t disagree with Mills, but would rather expound a bit upon his explication. The earl’s compassion is extraordinary and exemplary, a challenge for all Americans who find themselves in the role of an employer. Yet it is also in some ways still limited by his stratified societal worldview. It is more than compassion, and it is more than the Earl of Grantham.
Why I appreciate Downton so much, and I think what may draw people to it, is the character redemption. It’s the opposite of Breaking Bad. Some people do change. And people want to change. And people want to see people changing, becoming “better,” or at least more compassionate people.
At Downton, that is what exactly what we see. For the most part we see people moving from selfishness to selflessness. We see a movement from envy to rejoicing at the fortunes of others. We see remorse over past actions. We see class segregation begin to slowly fade away in some cases. We see people changing for the better as the seasons progress.
Under the roof of Downton Abbey, we begin to see the normally slow process of sanctification (I’m of course now using Christian terminology) unfold over the course of an hour, just as we hope to see in those who take refuge in the grace found and preached under the “roof” of Christ’s church.
People like to see people changing. People like to see that people can change. We see these things happening in most of the characters (some go back and forth) and that’s why I think it is so popular. At least that is one reason why I’m drawn to enjoy and empathize with almost all of the characters.