A few months ago, who would have bet that 5.4 million people would watch the two-hour finale of the second season of Masterpiece Classic’s “Downton Abbey?” And who would have guessed that the riveted viewers would not only be the older PBS stalwarts who dutifully pay their membership fees to local PBS stations each year, but the coveted-by-advertisers female demo 18-34?
For decades, Masterpiece Theatre has been filled with English dukes, earls, kings, queens, ladies and gentlemen, most often walking their lush country estates in gorgeous costumes and powdered wigs. And it seemed that the lauded 1970s series, “Upstairs, Downstairs,” had said all there was to say about the relationships between nobles and their servants. Even an attempted revival of “Upstairs, Downstairs” was a critically bashed failure a few years ago.
So why is “Downton Abbey” a sensation — at least by PBS terms? Its 5.4 million viewers won’t keep “American Idol” from singing, but that number beat about 75 of the 130 programs tracked each week by Nielsen.
First and perhaps most importantly, “Downton Abbey” isn’t medicine. It’s delicious fun. Secondly, if it doesn’t ignore the clichés of its period — so far roughly the decade from 1910 to 1920 bisected by World War I — it bounces them like a slightly lopsided ball. It is obvious to any reader of romance fiction that the handsome, young middle-class lawyer who just may become the next Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey cannot be paralyzed for the rest of his life no matter what the doctors say about his war wound. But how he walks again and what romantic complications his ability to walk causes are not expected. Will he end up with the right woman? Of course. But the road there is lined with briars.
What Julian Fellowes, who created and writes “Downton,” has succeeded in doing is layering the small, often subtle, changes that give texture to the bigger picture beneath the big changes that World War I brings to a class-bound, calcified society. Watch Carson (Jim Carter) the butler trying to remain imperturbable when he deals with a telephone for the first time. Or see the embarrassment on the doctor’s face when he is asked to stay for dinner, but is still wearing his daytime suit.
And in Violet, the dowager countess of Grantham, Fellowes has written the best domineering elderly lady since Oscar Wilde created Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” played to conservative magnificence by Maggie Smith. Although perhaps the Dowager Duchess is not quite as hidebound as she appears. When her granddaughter, Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), runs off to marry Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) socialist Irish chauffeur, it is the Dowager Duchess who tells her son that the aristocracy has not lasted by being intransigent. And, after all, someone on the other side may come in handy some day in the future.
As to that future, I can hardly wait for Season 3, when Shirley MacLaine joins Downton Abbey as the Earl of Grantham’s American mother-in-law. Fellowes said recently that the seed of Downton Abbey was planted when he read a book about American heiresses who married land-rich and often cash-poor British aristocrats in the late 19th century.
World War I and the Spanish flu are now behind Downton and Lady Sybil is pregnant with the chauffeur’s child. But Bates (Brendan Coyle), Lord Grantham’s much-too-noble-to-be-true valet, is still imprisoned for a murder he surely did not commit. And the Roaring Twenties lie ahead.