It’s hardly a surprise that the Television Academy would shower some love upon PBS’ Downton Abbey. After all, the Julian Fellowes–created drama—which airs in the U.S. on the 41-year-old anthology series Masterpiece—walked away with the Emmy Award for Best Miniseries last year, and scored a staggering cumulative audience of 17 million viewers for its second season. And Downton is now competing for a Best Drama award, ahead of the launch of its third season this weekend in the U.K.
The British soap will battle for the top prize with such critics’ darlings as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones, all of which hail from cable networks HBO, Showtime, and AMC. But, in a year when not a single broadcast network drama is being represented, Downton’s 16 nominations and its departure from the movies and miniseries category and into the fiercely contested Best Drama race is even more of a feat.
“We were going up against the giants of American television,” creator Julian Fellowes told The Daily Beast. “We were hoping for a look-in and we got 16.”
Fellowes wasn’t alone in that sense of surprise. “It is a big leap to go from being a ‘new boy’ to being in the mainframe,” said Hugh Bonneville, who plays the estate’s Earl, Lord Robert Grantham, and who scored a Best Actor nomination. “To be thought of in the same breath as people like Steve Buscemi and Damian Lewis is just mind-blowing, really.”
Bonneville wasn’t the only member of the show’s sprawling cast to receive a nod, with nominations also secured for Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter, Joanne Froggatt, Brendan Coyle, and Dame Maggie Smith. “It’s the complete antithesis of the usual ‘body of work’ thing that people get a noise for,” said executive producer Gareth Neame. “It can only be that the Academy members love those characters and really respect the actors that play those parts.”
For Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton, the show’s mainstream success has turned up the volume of the buzz surrounding Downton Abbey to deafening levels. “It keeps exceeding expectations,” she said. “I’m trying to stay calm and carry on.”
The show secured its status as a hurricane-strength cultural phenomenon with its second season, which found the Crawley clan struggling to survive amid the era of shifting social mores, World War I, and the deadly Spanish flu pandemic. Beloved characters died, others were injured, and romances were tested by distance, disease, and even—in the case of downstairs power couple Anna (Froggatt) and Bates (Coyle)—murder. It was a shift from the show’s relatively idyllic first season, which Bonneville said was “set in this golden world that probably never existed.”
The matter of Season 1’s missing snuffbox was soon replaced by weightier issues in the second season: after all, war and disease know nothing about class distinctions, and Downton Abbey was not likely to remain untouched by the world’s troubles.
“The first season concentrated on that very domestic environment,” said Neame. “When we had the opportunity to come back with a second season, the stakes were much higher. Those young men were going to have to go to war. Who is going to live and die? It was important to represent that because it was a seismic change, the impact of that First World War. Something like 1.5 million British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed. Across England, these rural communities were absolutely decimated ... and an entire generation was wiped out.”
Fellowes said that Downton Abbey remained very true to the wartime policies that inadvertently sealed the fate of many of these communities.
“Authorities, thinking to make it easier, would keep local people together in the same regiment,” he said. “William going and being Matthew’s servant was repeated in many, many places. Some people said, ‘Oh, did you make that up for the series?’ Absolutely not ... What it meant was that when [soldiers] went into a particularly unsuccessful battle like the Somme and everyone died in one regiment, it was like the wiping out of a village. It was terribly hard for the country to recover from that, but what it allowed us to do was to shake the whole game up in the air.”
Not everyone, however, was entirely pleased with the second season, with some arguing that it devolved too heavily into melodrama (there was, after all, that Patrick Crawley-maybe-returns-from-the-dead storyline), that it “lacked surprise,” and others complained that it was generally a “more labored, problematic affair this year.” Fellowes, however, was quick to defend Season 2.
“I love the second series,” Fellowes said. “The whole business of war when it comes into a normal life, it’s quite hard to dramatize that in isolation ... We have the luxury of being able to establish how this life is lived, who these people are, how this house works, everything running along on oiled wheels. When we threw them in a war situation, the audience could—I wouldn’t say enjoy, but could understand the tremendous change that the war had brought to their lives and particularly to the [Crawley] daughters’ lives.”
“Sybil and Edith both really found themselves because of the war,” he continued. “Sybil is a genuine rebel and doesn’t give a monkey’s tiddly about any of it. Edith is not a rebel at all, but she had a purpose for the first time. She woke up feeling useful ... That’s true of many women in that generation. Which is why, at the end, they didn’t want to get back in the box.”
Their struggles, occurring during a time of monumental change, ring especially true even today. Which might be why Downton’s viewers connect so strongly with the show’s characters: they feel familiar to us, even if they’re wearing corsets or livery.
“People have an interesting personal relationship with these characters and it has become such a piece of popular culture,” said Eaton.
Those viewers have gone well beyond the traditional Masterpiece set, drawing people—including a much younger demographic—to the PBS franchise who don’t ordinarily tune in regularly for costume dramas. Season 2 set record-breaking ratings for Masterpiece. (It’s now the most-watched Masterpiece miniseries on record.) Among younger viewers: Downton brought Masterpiece a more than 100 percent increase in adults 18–34 compared to the previous Masterpiece season average, the PBS prime-time average, and the Downton Abbey Season 1 average. Teen viewership, meanwhile, was up a staggering 88 percent.
“What’s really stunned me is how many young people are into it,” said Bonneville. “There are a number of teenagers who invest in it emotionally in such a huge way. The first time I got a sense that it was becoming bigger than another Sunday night costume drama in the U.K. was so many young people coming up to me and saying, ‘I don’t like that Thomas. What’s he up to next week? He’s awful.’ My god, you’re only 12 and you’re watching the show?”
Despite the attraction the show has now among young adults, Fellowes said Downton won’t suddenly start catering to a specific subset of viewers.
“You can’t think like that really, because otherwise you couldn’t get up in the morning,” he said. “You get Son of Easy Rider if you do that. You just have to try and serve the show. It has its own style. We are aware when some plot element comes up and you think, no, that’s not quite right, that isn’t right for this show ... Steven Spielberg once said, you should make films you want to see. And I think the same is true of television: you should write it and then watch it and think, Am I interested in this? Am I enjoying the series so far?”
As for why Downton has struck such a chord, there are a number of theories, from universality to originality in its plotting and worldview. “It’s just like an open-ended moving novel,” said Brendan Coyle. “It’s dynastic, it’s multi-stranded storytelling across a social divide. It’s not social realism, but it knows its history and its sense of place ... We’re really hitting our stride.”
Coyle’s on-screen wife, Joanne Froggatt, agreed. “Julian has this touch of gold in his scripts and storytelling,” she said. “There’s a whole cross section of the community living in this house ... and Julian has a great knowledge of that kind of estate that would have functioned as the heart of a rural community. We can all connect with that even in this day and age, the loves and losses and back-biting and intrigue that happen within this world, so there’s something for everyone there.”
Bonneville added that the breadth of the cast of characters adds to Downton’s gravitational pull. “That’s probably true with most of Julian’s writing,” said Bonneville. “Even the characters that you think you don’t like and want to hate, they’ll surprise you by revealing something about dignity or decency or something underneath that makes you reassess what you thought of them.”
The show itself has become so lodged in the popular consciousness that it has spawned countless imitators and parodies, particularly this year. There is even a Twitter account that is based entirely around the pristine eyebrows of Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary, which once described itself as “The only perfect eyebrows in Twitter history. Loved by Matthew Crawley, adored by all.”
Dockery expressed absolute astonishment over the existence of such an account. “I think that is just, I can’t—I don’t know what to say, really,” Dockery said, laughing. “I am very flattered. I don’t touch them much. Oh, that is hilarious.”
Part 2 of this feature, in which Fellowes and the cast discuss the upcoming third season of 'Downton Abbey,' can be read here.