TV Club

Downton Abbey Season 2: Why is the PBS hit so popular?

Why do we love Lady Mary, the Dowager Countess, and Mr. Bates the valet so?

Downton Abbey, Season 2.
Downton Abbey, Season 2

Still © 2011 Nick Briggs/ITV for Masterpiece Theater.

June and Dan,

Are you ready for some Downton? Season 2 premieres on PBS this Sunday night. In preparation, I’ve spent all week ironing newspapers and polishing snuff boxes. Dan, please grab some salt of sorrel and help me scrub out this enormous copper pot. June, you can go ahead and ring the dressing bell. At long last, it’s Abbey time.

Six Emmys. Millions of viewers. Downton Abbey’s first season was a breakout hit when it arrived on American shores a year ago. And not just with the older, tote-bag types. Suddenly, twentysomething women—and, ahem, the occasional thirtysomething man—were actually watching and talking and tweeting about public television. What is it about this soapy British import that we all find so enchanting?

Of course there’s the old-fashioned, slo-mo romance. Fleeting glances. Fluttering hearts. Earnest declarations. Plenty of fodder for ‘shippers who yearn to see Mary and Matthew (or Anna and Bates, or Lord Grantham and his yellow Labrador) united.

But it’s more than that. Perhaps Downton’s themes of arbitrary privilege and servility are perfectly matched to our current 99 percent moment. Consider that the BBC has un-mothballed Upstairs, Downstairs—the original toffs-and-peons TV show. I noticed, too, that P.D. James injected a prole-heavy plotline into her recent Pride and Prejudice sequel, Death Comes to Pemberley. If I remember right, Jane Austen herself devoted zero pages to the hopes and dreams of housemaids and footmen. Is wealth inequality a drag on our economy but a boon to our costume dramas?

Or maybe it’s precisely the wealth fantasy and the house porn that keeps us glued to the screen each week. The opening credit sequence—all bright green lawns, fresh-cut flowers, polished dinnerware, and sparkling chandeliers—suggests it’s the lifestyle that’s the real star here. Oh my, look at that chair rail! And that mantelpiece! And that dress! And that ever-so-indulgent hat! And wouldn’t it be lovely if my apartment came equipped with a scullery maid?

Or it might be that we can’t resist a good inheritance battle. Nothing brings out scheming greed and noble selflessness like a pile of money suddenly up for grabs. The stakes are primal. Who gets the cash? The title? The house? Will Lady Mary’s dowry make her a glittering prize or an underfunded also-ran? (By the way, for those of you who like a complicated estate entail at the heart of your period drama, I recommend Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx. All the dubious codicils and shady title transfers you could ever hope for.)

If the secret to Downton’s success is that it’s a family saga, the show’s clever structure gives us not one but two families to follow. For what are Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes if not the mummy and daddy of the servant set? Upstairs, we get a fairy tale family with fancy frocks and first-world problems. Downstairs it’s a squabbling, ramshackle brood we might recognize from real life, replete with sinners and saints, straights and gays, sharp cookies and dim bulbs, live wires and cold fish. And with so many simultaneous narratives afoot, we’re never at a loss for someone to root for, or against.

Could it simply be the casting? I harbor a serious crush on Lady Mary and an unhealthy, burgeoning interest in Lady Sybil. (Though, strangely, my jets cooled a bit when I saw them in modern garb.) (Note: The news article that photo is attached to contains Season 2 spoilers.) I love to hate the devious O’Brien, who looks like a live-action oil painting. And then of course there is Dame Maggie Smith, who as the Dowager Countess of Grantham provides pitch-perfect comic relief, whether she is pursing her lips, battling a swivel chair, or asking with puzzlement, “What is a ‘week-end?’ ”

No doubt, Downton Abbey has its irritating tics. There’s the on-the-nose dialogue (“Things are changing for women, Gwen!”) and the clunky historical foreshadowing (whatever will come of the Archduke’s assassination?). Plots are sometimes implausible, hinging on Three’s Company-style misunderstandings. Characters can seem weirdly unmotivated: Why is Bates always such an insufferable martyr? Why is O’Brien so evil right from jump street?

Personally, I have no trouble overlooking these minor flaws. And I cannot wait to watch Season 2 with you both. June, what are we expecting from the episodes ahead? Maybe some intra-house romance that at last bridges the family/servant divide? (This was a key plotline in Gosford Park, also written by Downton honcho Julian Fellowes, and clearly Branson the chauffeur has the hots for Lady Sybil.) Who will go off to war? Who will inherit the estate? And will Americans ever get to watch the Downton Christmas special?

Affixing m’lord’s cufflinks,