Despite its popularity in the U.S., Downton Abbey isn’t exactly a beloved show in its native U.K. Actor Jeremy Irons described the show as being like a Ford Fiesta, which “will get you there and give you a good time” but not much else. Daniel Day-Lewis said in a recent interview that the nostalgia of the show is oppressing and that its attitude “is the reason I left England.” Benedict Cumberbatch dismissed the show as “fu%$%# atrocious” and loathed “its blizzards of anachronisms, its absurd soap-operatics, and its Oprah-style oversharing between aristos and servants.”
But it’s a very different story here in the United States. Downton Abbey connected with American audiences almost immediately when it premiered on public television in 2011. Its popularity grew to the point that when the third season finale aired in February of this year, it wasn’t just the most popular drama of the week on broadcast and cable television. It was also the most popular drama in the history of public television.
The show is also an obsession of celebrities from every part of show business. Singers from Katy Perry to Reba McEntire raved about it, actor Harrison Ford hinted he wouldn’t mind making a cameo in the upcoming season, comedian Patton Oswalt live-tweeted every episode and rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs starred in a Funny or Die video in which he was digitally inserted into scenes from the show. Downton Abbey has also inspired spoofs from everyone from The Simpsons to Sesame Street and comedian Stephen Colbert did a video that mashed up footage from the show with The Walking Dead.
The fourth season of Downton Abbey doesn’t premiere here in the States until January, but it’s currently airing in England and that’s inspired some rabid American fans to “acquire” copies of the episodes online and host secretive viewing parties. It’s clear we love the show here in America. But what is it about Downton Abbey that makes us love it so much?
While Brits may be a bit too close to the complex and limiting social mores of Edwardian England, here in the U.S. we approach the show in a very different way. We see the strict social castes as amusing and anachronistic, even though we have social mores of our own that are just as confining. We would never be drawn to a show set on a plantation in the pre-Civil War South because it’s too close to home. But having a show set in England provides just enough emotional distance to allow us the freedom to enjoy the show on its own terms.
In a weird way, Downton Abbey is the perfect show for an American audience. We love the grandeur of the Edwardian-era gowns, the spectacular estates and the myriad of emotions lingering just below the surface of every conversation. At the same time, the story lines are very familiar to Americans. The show has been described as a “John Hughes-infused costume drama” and I think that’s pretty accurate. Who can’t relate to Daisy, with her hopeless series of crushes or Lord Grantham’s high-minded yet ultimately out of touch attitude? And anyone who is married will find much to appreciate in Shirley MacLaine’s portrayal of Martha Levinson, the wealthy, social climbing New York-based mother of Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern).