"Downton Abbey" is a show we shouldn’t be watching, let alone talking about. Set way back in the dark ages of the early 1900s, it’s the story of an aristocratic British family living at a grand manor home and the servants who take care of them.
It involves in depth conversations about the laws of inheritance, it has no nudity or cursing, electricity is considered bold technology, no one bursts into song and even though we’re less than halfway through season 2, it’s safe to say that there are no aliens or zombies in sight. If I haven’t lost you yet, how about this for the kicker – it’s on PBS. Are you reaching for the smelling salts yet?
It’s insane that one of the most popular shows in recent memory is on Masterpiece Theater, the longtime home of corseted highbrow drama. They’ve had other breakout hits, mostly recently "The Forsythe Sage" and it’s no surprise that Brits embrace them.
Although they import our shows, they have their own to choose from, with much more raunch and much less censorship. How different and restrained a show like "Downton" must seem, with its longing glances and whispered conversations. I can see the appeal to the Brits, a contrast to their present and a glimpse of their past, complete with wars and class struggle. It’s stranger that we, their more modern but Puritan revolutionary cousins, are sucked into it. We rail against the 1 percent but are still drawn into their world. What’s the magic formula that makes "Downton: so addictive?
1. It’s a well-written soap opera that doesn’t insult our intelligence: Long-running daytime soaps are being shuttered by the networks, nighttime soaps struggle to retain audiences, yet a seemingly prim melodrama is putting up huge numbers? It’s not the format that’s the problem – everyone loves following characters through ups and downs – it’s ludicrous storylines that fail to attract audiences for the long haul. There are only so many times that you can watch a pregnant amnesiac remarry an ex, who turns out to be the crime lord who kidnapped her. For all its grandeur, "Downton" is built on the basics – love, marriage, family and money. Every story line stems from these concepts. If you strip away the accents, the magnificent wealth and even the time period, the writing would still hold up.
2. It has great acting by people who are just good-looking enough: This may sound like an insult but hear me out. If you’ve ever gotten into a BBC show, you can’t fail to notice that while they’re generally an attractive bunch, you’re not overly distracted by the hotness. When you compare our sleek show ponies to overseas actors, Team USA is a very tan, thin and glam-looking crew. But sometimes I find it hard to focus on the acting when the abs are so appealing. Downton, keeping everyone modestly attired, is populated by normally attractive people who aren’t so airbrushed to perfection that you find yourself immersed in what they’re saying and not the arch of their eyebrow or their toned arms. You see the character and not the actor, who’s just shared with People magazine their 10 tips to a perfect workout.
3. History class is boring. History come to life is fascinating: I love to read but I rarely have patience for histories or biographies bogged down in minutiae, preferring to let real life peek through fiction instead. "Downton Abbey" started with the Titanic, is now in the midst of WWI and there’s talk of trouble in Russia and Ireland. We get to be clairvoyant when we watch, knowing in a big-picture way where things are going but more importantly, we want to watch it play out for the characters we care about.
4. You have your fantasy and I have mine, Part I: We all know that life wasn’t better in 1916. People died from a cut, wars and revolutions were regular occurrences, poverty was a way of life for the majority and education was an unimaginable luxury for most. That was the reality. But the fantasy (where you’realways the upper class and never the servant) romanticizes everything into a kind of shimmering gloss of dressing up for dinner, confiding in your loyal lady’s maid and rolling bandages for romantically injured soldiers. Obviously, "Downton: is geared more for the 50% of the audience with ovaries, as a quality romance novel come to life. That’s a compliment.
5. You have your fantasy and I have mine, Part II: While it may seem incongruous that 21st century Americans addicted to "Beverly Hills Housewives" and iPhones are obsessed with "Downton Abbey," I think it’s the differences from our daily lives that attract us. There is only a very small percentage of the population today that knows what it’s like to live with servants, be helped into your clothes and waited on at the dinner table. Our lives and schedules resemble the servants’ more than the aristocrats – it’s morning to night, with little time to ourselves – regardless of status. Even in the midst of war, "Downton’s" pace is leisurely and the show itself feels very different from any network drama set in the present. There’s time for unhurried conversations, meandering walks and handwritten notes. It’s not a 24/7 world and that’s refreshing for those of us who can’t imagine the luxury of a pace so different from our own.
The hype about "Downton" is deserved. No network would have known what to do with a show like this while PBS let it flourish, in its own unhurried time. There are no gimmicks and it isn’t easily Twitterfied into 140 characters of easily digestible and forgettable entertainment. Watching it demands attention and immersion, discussion and debate.
After a few episodes, your posture and enunciation may improve. You will know that the Western Front is not the name of a fancy kind of breakfast. You might consider hiring a footman for your studio apartment or a chauffeur for your Honda Civic. It’s just that kind of show.
Why aren’t you watching?