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Why Americans Enjoy Downton Abbey: Poise, Dignity, and Culture

Updated on April 13, 2013

What attracts American audiences to a British period drama? How can a reality television obsessed culture that watches shows about pregnant teenagers, compulsive hoarders, drug addict interventions, and high end pawn shops find time in its busy viewer schedule to watch a British series about the lives of post-Edwardian era Aristocrats and their staff of butlers, maids, cooks, footmen, and housekeepers? It’s not fair to assume that Americans sacrifice brain cells whenever they watch their favorite programs. There are plenty of enriching American drama series, witty situation comedies, and history programs. Television caters to specific audiences, and American audiences that tune into series about vampires or sociopathic crime solvers that satisfy their blood lust by blurring the line between murder and vigilante justice also have an overwhelming soft spot for a show like Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey might very well prove to be a catalyst that shifts our attention away from depressing reality shows that glorify ignorance and self- indulgence.


It isn’t that Downton Abbey is more intelligently written or that it casts better actors that sets it apart from other critically acclaimed series that are popular on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, it’s the fact that the shows content is so radically different from other contemporary viewing choices. Downton Abbey has become a primetime juggernaut. It is an international success that has garnered overwhelming critical acclaim. There isn’t another current series like it though. How did a show that aired as a part of the PBS Masterpiece Classic Anthology end up becoming the most nominated non –American series in the history of the Grammys?


I suspect the answer may be rooted in our subconscious infatuation with royalty and the class systems that ceased to exist in America after the American Revolution and the dignity and poise with which situations are dealt within their culture. British culture resonates with Americans because it is an inherent part of our history. If British culture and American culture are so different, then why do images of the British Royal Family grace the covers of so many of our magazines? Why did the Queen’s jubilee, the tragic death of Princess Diana, and the lives of her sons Prince William and Prince Harry continually play active roles on American news stations? It is probably because our young nation was born as a collection of British colonies. Britain and the United States have a centuries old parent child relationship. They are interested in what we do, and we are interested in what they do because we have been intertwined for so long. Downton Abbey opens the door for us to look into the past and indulge in British aristocracy. The costumes and sets draw us into something that is both so foreign, yet oddly familiar. We get to watch conversations in the King’s English, a purer form of the language that we share. It is nice to follow dialogues that aren’t marred by the usage of slang terms and swear words. Even when the characters are angry or disgruntled, they don’t sacrifice the dignity of their language or use vulgarities to emphasize a point. I think that we do share a common respect for the finer points of the language and culture of our former colonizers. Listening to people address each other as “Lord” and “Lady” is somewhat refreshing when one is used to the less formal American vernacular.


Downton Abbey does not fail to recognize the fact that the plot of the show is set in an antiquated environment and depicts life in an antiquated social setting. There are issues that the show deals with that stay true to the period, but do not reflect on modern sympathies or opinions. Sure, the series’ main depiction of romantic courtship is between cousins, and women aren’t exactly treated equally. Nobody watches to fondly reminisce or fantasize about every detail of early twentieth century social life. But, the series does a brilliant job at writing sympathetic angles that do seek to raise awareness for the unfavorable manner in which women, lower class civilians, servants, and homosexuals were viewed. Downtown Abbey is rich with heart even when depicting a set of circumstances that audiences now understand to be immoral or insensitive. We watch with a modern understanding of humanity and take great pleasure in watching scenes that examine a character’s progressive understanding of how the world works verses how it ought to be. We were pleased when Lord Grantham finally accepted Branson as a suitable husband for Lady Sybil based on his merits as a good person rather than his lack of class standing. We quietly cheered when Mrs. Hughes stood up for Thomas against Carson’s belief that he is a foul twisted abomination of nature because of the surfacing of his homosexuality. Mrs. Hughes’ understanding of Thomas is progressive and enlightened even by modern standards.


Downton Abbey also resonates with us by showing that woes tied to money; relationships, reputations, war, sickness, and death infiltrate every social and economic system no matter how much it boasts of infallibility. Even though their system of governance is an ideal present only in the lives of nobility, they are not above understanding real problems such as war and poverty. The characters do not distance themselves from The Great War (World War I) during the second series. They are not above military service and an ethical duty to open the doors of Downton to soldiers who are recovering from injuries sustained in the trenches. Downton is not immune to monetary issues or sickness and death, but it’s the approach of the characters to issues that we can all relate to that we find appealing. Their dignity and poise is never broken. Even an angry outburst is delivered in a grammatically proper way. There is appropriate attention paid to the message and the delivery thereof. The characters have a sense of shame and humility that society no longer seems to stress. It’s a manner of behaving that we might all benefit from taking note of, the lost art of composure.


The story lines are gripping, the dialogue is superb, and the writing does justice to authenticity. We watch Downton Abbey week after week. We miss it when it’s gone and rejoice when it returns. It is a series that men and women alike are drawn into. Even if a viewer catches a single scene without any prior knowledge of the characters or the shows dynamics, they are compelled to explore further into what they have missed. A single episode has the power to create new fans. We always want to know more. We want to feel as though we are a part of what’s happening. The demographic of viewers is international. The series doesn’t seek to resonate more with one age group or a single gender. It is historical fiction at its finest. It is a history lesson with faces and personalities. We watch Downton Abbey because it is eloquent and historical. It taps into our psyche of cultural appreciation and historical curiosity. It depicts a system of nobility that we are not a part of in a way that welcomes us to immerse ourselves in it.


I believe that shows like Downton Abbey are only the beginning of a shift away from reality television. Audiences will someday completely abandon the exaggerated lives of reality television stars and begin to shift back toward good writing and acting. Life is complicated. Watching television that mirrors real life only exacerbates the stress of living in the real world. Entertainment ought to provide a break from reality. We get enough of swearing unsavory vulgar people in our day to day lives. We don’t need to watch them on television when we are supposed to be relaxing.


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