Why Is “Downton Abbey” So Popular?

It was Spring Break last week at Duke, so I enjoyed all that “free” time to do two things. During the day, I worked on revising a few research papers that are in various stages of production. At night, I watched all of the BBC’s ITV’s Downton Abbey.

I thoroughly enjoyed the show, but I wonder why I — and, apparently, hundreds of thousands of others — enjoyed it so much. When all is said and done, most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional, and The Wire this is not. But if you’ve not seen the show and plan on watching it, skip the next two paragraphs to avoid the spoilers.

Thomas and O’Brien, who are respectively a footman and the lady’s maid, are always bad. Anna and Bates, who are respectively the head housemaid and the lord’s valet, are always good. Perhaps the only character who exhibits a bit of depth is the dowager countess, brilliantly played by Maggie Smith.

(Yes, I know: Bates is in prison for the death of his wife. But is there any doubt that season 3 will bring a new development which will exonerate him?)

So what explains Downton Abbey‘s popularity? Over lunch on Friday, a friend said he thought the show was popular because it allows us to picture ourselves living “that type of life,” by which he meant the life led by the aristocratic Crawley family. But I’m not sure this fully explains it.

As a social scientist, I enjoyed Downton Abbey because it relates cultural and social change (i.e., the erosion of the class structure in Britain) to historical (i.e., World War I, the Spanish influenza epidemic) and technological (i.e., electrification, the arrival of the telephone) change. But again, I’m not sure this fully explains the show’s popularity. So what else could it be? I’d be curious to hear about readers’ views in the comments section.

Speaking of World War I, as soon as I finish the book I am currently reading, I am looking forward to reading Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, which explores the many ways in which World War I brought in the modern era.

(By the way, this explains why I paid no attention to the whole Kony 2012/Invisible Children controversy. Click here if you want a list of reading materials about Kony 2012.)

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7 comments

  1. Weh Yeoh

    I haven’t seen the show, so can’t comment. But when I started this article, I swear you were going to segue into talking about Kony 2012, and how it was popular because (like Downton Abbey) the characters are one-dimensional. Schade…

  2. Tom

    I am with you Marc. My enjoyment is the social change element of it. The changes within the lower and upper houses both independently and together is what makes it so compelling. Plus, as I told you before, Thomas is one of the most brilliantly created characters on television. The same goes for many of the others including Matthew and the dowager countess. All of these characters have multiple layers that contribute to their motives/actions, but also contradict them.

    One would think that Thomas dealing with his homosexuality and his experience in the war would shape him in a different way. As terrible as he is, the writers still make the audience feel bad for him when his food buying scheme fails. The fact that a loathsome character can elicit feelings of sympathy is the sign of strong character development and writing.

  3. Marc F. Bellemare

    You felt bad for Thomas when his food-hoarding scheme failed? I actually felt like he’d had his comeuppance. I wonder what is the proportion of viewers who, like you, felt bad (and, conversely, what is the proportion of viewers who, like me, felt like he’d deserved it).

  4. Rida H B

    Marc, I’m glad you’ve highlighted the underlying social dynamics. I read a piece in The Guardian recently, which said that the show reflects the reality of Britain as it enters 2012 – riddled with rising class inequality and poverty. I don’t think that explains the popularity but the show’s relevance to contemporary British society is worth thinking about.

  5. Marc F. Bellemare

    That interpretation strikes me as par for the course with The Guardian. Now, I don’t live in Britain, and my experience of it is limited to a few stays totaling less than a month, but I also do not think this explains the popularity of the show.

  6. LaurenPM

    Tom – I so agree with you. I love thinking about the many elements of societal change that you can see across the two levels of British society. I enjoy watching these two social groups interact – much more directly and with more humanity and respect than I was expecting.

    I also agree with Tom about feeling bad for Thomas. Now, I HATE Thomas most of the time, but for some reason my heart broke for him when his food scheme failed. I was so confused by my feelings – I felt like I _should_ be happy to watch him fail, but I just wasn’t.

  7. NormaP

    Marc,
    Does this mean you haven’t seen Donwton’s “Christmas special”?? (It’s a really long episode. At least it ran as 1 episode in the UK, where Bates’ situation gets a bit more…attention). Also there’s the epic finale where…. hahaha won’t spoil it!

    Oh and what I enjoy of it, among the gorgeous scenery and costumes, is the depiction surprisingly (at least for me) powerful women. Even in their contrived roles, they exert a lot of influence on their own and others’ lives, and there’s the impression (if perhaps exaggerated) that women at the turn of the century didn’t have it to bad.