When non-viewers first hear about Downton Abbey, they think of the old British drama that their mother’s best friend watches every night with her cats. When fans hear about it, they are suddenly overwhelmed with a painful love that only Julian Fellowes can induce. Fellowes, the show’s only writer, has managed to bring this number one drama to the UK, the US, and many other continents including Asia, Australia, South America and counting. In the United States, it is the most watched PBS Masterpiece Classic program in history, with over 8.2 million viewers on its season three finale.
However, the most popular question surrounding the period drama is what makes it so good. To begin, it’s filled with captivating plots. Beginning in 1912, the Titanic has just sunk and the characters, back in England, are facing its aftermath. On the ship were Downton’s (the Crawley family estate) next two heirs. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and his wife, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), have three daughters: Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay). Titanic’s aftermath has left Lord Grantham’s third cousin as the rightful heir, a middle class lawyer from Manchester. The family immediately thinks they are giving Lord Grantham’s title to a slightly classier Kardashian, (which isn’t a good thing). However, this cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), learns the ropes of the estate rather quickly and abandons most of his previous morals to become one of the higher-class members of the house.
And that’s only the upstairs drama.
Below the stairs are the servants run by Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the butler, and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), the head housekeeper. Various members of the staff are running around: Thomas (Rob James-Collier), a valet (val-it, we’re not parking a car here), Mrs. O’Brien, (Siobhan Finneran), Lady Grantham’s maid, the righteous Bates (Brendan Coyle), a valet, Daisy (Sophie McShera), a kitchen maid, and her overseer, the cook, Mrs. Pattmore (Lesley Nicol), and the adorable head housemaid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt). Every character has a story and almost everyone has a romance.
Upstairs, there are Mary and Matthew and their family titles annoyingly infiltrating their romantic intentions. They have an on-again, off-again relationship until finally fate determines their outcome. There’s Sybil and her groundbreaking romance with one of the help, Tom Branson (Allen Leech). And then there’s Edith’s life which equals that of the unluckiest woman in post-Edwardian culture. As for the Granthams, they’re moderately happy with each other.
Downstairs, there’s my favorite: Anna, and the valet, Bates. Their drama had me gasping, crying, and ultimately questioning my sanity. There’s the heartbreaking Daisy and William (Thomas Howes). Also, there is the undeniable attraction between Carson and Mrs. Hughes. With most of the cast downstairs, there’s more drama that unfolds: romance, death, flirting, growing up, a mistaken pregnancy, and even an ex-prostitute running around causing Carson to raise his eyebrows to a new level.
This show has swept the globe, giving these actors a new face in everyone’s media circle and celebrities can’t stop talking about it. Angela Lansbury hosted the pre-season three Downton Abbey special on PBS. Reba McEntire already has her role in mind: “…I’ve already got it written it out. I would love to play Lady Mary’s cousin.” Mandy Moore tweeted, “CANT. STOP. WATCHING. DOWNTON. ABBEY.” Ginnifer Goodwin Rosie O’Donnell, Rainn Wilson, Bette Midler, Craig Ferguson, Kristin Chenoweth, Katy Perry, and Steve Martin also used their twitter accounts to speak of their obsession for the show. Jamie Lee Curtis said she’s “Totally, manically obsessed.” Kristen Bell put on her twitter account: “[y]ou guessed it, its 130am and I’m re-watching Downton Abbey episodes. I am wildly obsessed with this show.” Harrison Ford spoke of his love for the series in one of his interviews. It’s rumored that Michelle Obama had season 3 shipped over before America got to see it. Even Prince William and Kate Middleton told one of the actors, Jessica Brown-Findlay, that they love the show, “they spoke very highly of it.”
There have also been countless parodies of the drama spanning from Jimmy Fallon’s hilarious Downton Sixbey to Sesame Street. There’s a cat version: “Downton Tabby”, a fast-food version, “Downton Arby’s”. A YouTube video has mashed up clips so that the characters sing One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” and Britain’s Red Nose Day celebration (for comic relief) parodied the show and an older English drama, Upstairs Downstairs, with “Upstairs Downstairs Abbey”.
Maybe it’s the nostalgic emotion brought on by seeing an Edwardian culture that keeps this show moving. Through the dialogue, it’s conveyed that they are concerned for the future (our present). The show does allow audiences to imagine what they think might be a simpler time. It was an era without the constant pressure of socialization. You didn’t have to update your Instagram with your cat’s breakfast. There wasn’t a live-feed twitter account of Anne Hathaway’s nipples. And the closest we got to the Harlem Shake was shaking hands in Harlem.
So, do me a favor now that I have told you about this year’s, and last year’s, and probably next year’s most addicting drama. Sit down. Find a way to see season one (Amazon, Hulu, On Demand), before it leaves. (Amazon Prime bought the rights to be the only streaming device to have this show once the summer hits) and experience the best form of an irrational obsession.
Promotional photo credited to PBS.org