But what is the show’s great appeal, especially to Americans?
Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, writes that most have explained it by saying that “Americans love a period drama, and they dote on the British aristocracy.” The British series drew 5.4 million viewers for its second season finale and is now one of the most watched television programs in the world. The linchpin of the series is, of course, the relationships and interactions between the aristocrats and the servants.
Mills points to the widespread popularity of the similar 1970s British television series “Upstairs Downstairs,” which also was shown on PBS, and movies such as “Gosford Park,” which was written by “Downton” creator, Julian Fellowes. This trend can also be seen in the well received 1981 television miniseries “Brideshead Revisited” as well as in the resurgent interest in Jane Austen’s work over the pasts several years.
According to Mills, besides brilliant acting and writing, there is another deeper explanation for the success of “Downton Abbey” — its compassion. Mills believes that this compassion is especially evident in Hugh Bonneville’s nuanced portrayal of Robert, The earl of Grantham, the patriarch of Downton.
Despite his temper and full acceptance of a life of privilege, Mills says, “The earl is everything so many of today’s get-tough-with-the-poor politicians are not. His actions [are] governed by his belief in an unstated social contract …”
At one point, he intimates that the rich have a moral obligation to employ servants, if only to provide employment. In this respect the earl is the polar opposite of the typical British aristocrat of the time, who was, at best, totally indifferent to the household servants plight, according to contemporary accounts, such as Margaret Powell’s memoir “Below Stairs.”
As the Occupy Wall Street Movement and last presidential election demonstrate, class conflicts are alive and well in America and perhaps the notion of a warm-hearted aristocrat, such as the earl is welcome news. President Obama’s successful campaign suggests that a majority of America still see value in the idea of a “social contract.”