When it premiered on PBS in 2011, very few would’ve predicted that Downton Abbey would become the megahit that it did. This was an obscure British melodrama from the writer of Gosford Park about an aristocratic English family and their servants navigating social and cultural changes at the turn of the century. Not exactly a winning formula for a nation glued to The Apprentice.
Yet Downton became just as huge a hit in America as it did across the pond. It also received overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim, raking in multiple Emmys and even landing in the Guinness Book of World Records as “the most critically acclaimed television show” of 2011. The glory of the show undoubtedly faded over the last few seasons, as writers struggled to keep the plot interesting without jumping the shark. But all in all, Downton exceeded all expectations and then some.
What made it such a big hit?
Some chalked it up to the unapologetic melodrama of the show. “Melodrama is an uncool thing to trade in these days,” David Kamp wrote in Vanity Fair, “but then, that’s precisely why Downton Abbey is so pleasurable. In its clear delineation between the goodies and the baddies, in its regulated dosages of highs and lows, the show is welcome counter-programming to the slow-burning despair and moral ambiguity of most quality drama on television right now.”
There’s an element of truth to that, but if we’re honest, there’s really no shortage of melodrama on television. There were other more unique factors that set Downton apart from standard TV fare from the get-go.
There was, for example, the romanticism of the old aristocracy, the same paradoxical allure that drives endless coverage of Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge in the egalitarian United States.
There was also Downton’s exploration of how upheavals in both technology and class structures were quickly (and dramatically) changing the world, a theme with clear parallels to our own time. Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator, explains that his personal experiences with anti-Catholicism informed the show’s inclusion of ethnic, economic and religious outcasts who throw deeply held prejudices of the surrounding culture into question. “We’ve had lots of films about concentration camps and murder and so on,” Fellows explains, “but the real danger, I think anyway, are those slight but generally accepted prejudices where people, they hardly know that they believe it. They subscribe to it — anti-black, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-whatever it is.”
But I think there was something deeper still that made the characters of Downton so alluring. In a word, it was the dignity of the age.
Was the time and place perfect? Of course not. The Crawleys inherited the narrow-minded, self-perpetuating bubble of the upper class, and with it, all the stuffy formalities and rules that came with it. You’d be hard pressed to find modern Americans who longed to be back in that world, either among the servants (with their lack of prospects) or the nobility (with their lack of openness). A lot of progress has been made in the world since then to give a fair shot to the proletariat and give the lie to the puritans.
But could every advance also involve a retreat? There was still something about life in the abbey that we long to have back. Everybody — the servants and the nobility, white and black, Protestant and Catholic — possessed an untaught, unspoken integrity, one that meant thinking and speaking in relentless consideration of the integrity of others. At its worst, this devolved into empty and even ugly formalisms; but at its best, it honored and celebrated the unique stature of the human person.
The characters didn’t just talk the talk; they walked the walk. Their dignity was upheld everywhere by the four “cardinal” virtues. What fan will ever forget the justice of Lord Grantham (“Mrs. Patmore has been loyal to this house,” he declared just before the show’s finale, “and now this house must be loyal to her”), or the fortitude of the Dowager (“You have a straightforward choice before you,” she counseled the grieving Lady Mary: “You must choose either death or life”)? Or the relentless temperance of Mr. Carson, balanced by the rugged prudence of Mrs. Hughes — one of the greatest love stories in television history without so much as a scintilla of lewdness?
Of course, these men and women were far from perfect. They were human, like anyone in any age. Lord Grantham had moments of anger and unfaithfulness; the Dowager could be mean and petty; and Mrs. Hughes and Carson could lapse into impropriety with the rest of them. But these moments were just that: lapses. Their souls were fortified against corruption and even flippancy by the world around them; they knew that life, and the people that make it up, mattered, and mattered a lot.
This is what I think made Downton Abbey such a special show — and it will be sorely missed.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher and cultural commentator at AleteiaandWord on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish and Real Clear Religion.