At first it looks like total mismatch. Why would a British series about an aristocratic country house a century ago become the most successful foreign series ever imported to the United States? Downton Abbey, the returning miniseries set in the Yorkshire country house of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, first broadcast on ITV and then aired on PBS, has garnered more Primetime Emmy nominations than any other non–U.S. TV series—27 in total. In the U.K., the beginning of the third series, which aired two weeks ago, gained record audiences.
The setting for Monday night’s interview with the creators of the show, writer Julian Fellowes and producer Gareth Neame, only emphasized the anomaly. The joint event by Credit Suisse and Newsweek and The Daily Beast, hosted by editor in chief Tina Brown, was staged in the room of London’s National Gallery that features a portrait by Joshua Reynolds of a so-called British hero of the American Revolution.
One can understand a British fascination with its faded imperial past, but why would the U.S., the country that prides itself on meritocracy and mobility, find itself addicted to the sclerotic nobility of the turn of the last century?
According to Julian Fellowes, an American theme was built into the concept. Approached to devise the series by Gareth Neame, after the success of his screenplay Gosford Park (directed by Robert Altman), Fellowes was initially concerned that it smacked of “two bites of the same cherry,” he said. But then the germ for the TV series came: the “American Buccaneers,” the “inspirational and predatory” heiresses from the U.S. who came to Britain in the late 19th century in search of a husband and a pedigree. Winston Churchill’s mother was one, as is the fictional character of Cora, the Countess of Grantham, played by Elizabeth McGovern. “They outlived the way of life they tried to preserve,” said Fellowes. “I wanted to explore how it felt to wake up in the morning dreaming of Long Island.”
This trans-Atlantic element partly explains the trans-Atlantic success. Downton’s first season tracked the two years from the sinking of the Titanic to the outbreak of World War I. The second was dominated by the catastrophe of the trenches and Spanish influenza, and the third season has opened with an even more explicitly American theme, with Shirley MacLaine arriving in Yorkshire as the countess’ mother, Martha, a brash American challenge to La Belle Dame sans Merci figure of the earl’s mother, Violet (Maggie Smith).
“Violet is mostly concerned with the past,” said Fellows, “Martha with the future.” So the odds are already stacked in the American’s favor. The first episodes of the third season have already suggested a massive change in fortunes, as the earl’s investments have failed and austerity looms. British land ownership is about to go through a massive upheaval, and the “servant class” is about to be virtually wiped out by a rise in labor costs and more work opportunities for women.
But for all its apparent nostalgia, Fellowes said Downton is “Janus-faced” and looks ahead as much as back to “the modern world going through a painful birth.” So beware. This is a drama series with a historic ticking clock, just as surely as 24 or, in its own way, Mad Men. Though Neame was drawn to speculating which characters in the show might end up as appeasers of Hitler, the time scales of the narrative and the real age of the cast mean that, unless there’s a lot of what Fellowes calls “wobbly-stick acting,” the end is in sight.
This fin de siècle feeling is perhaps another reason for Downton’s popularity in the U.S. As Brown suggested, the show is a cultural phenomenon that has many contemporary resonances. “It feeds the story of downward mobility, the haves and have-nots: austerity and the 1 percent, and the U.S. obsession with class,” she said. The sense of relative national decline is also a key part of the mood music of the most critically successful contemporary U.S. TV dramas, such as The Sopranos and The Wire.
(Full disclosure: this author has written several primetime British TV dramas and also has complained about the relative decline of British TV compared to American.)
While the theme of Downton may be the demise of a class and the end of an empire, the storytelling is anything but downbeat, and Fellowes attributes most of the success of the show not just to American themes but to the innovations of U.S. TV drama: the concurrent storyline techniques developed in Hill Street Blues and The West Wing, which make perfect sense of the microcosm of a country house. Above all, Fellowes said he believes Downton would never have been successful had it been commissioned by the BBC because it would have become “just another costume drama.” “There are no good guys or bad guys in Downton Abbey,” he said. “But the BBC would have wanted us to tell you whose side to be on … we don’t judge.”