Until recently in the United States, the costume drama was a minority taste. Merchant Ivory adaptations of 19th-century novels and the imported British series shown on US public television’s Masterpiece Theatre have long been regarded as the fusty province of wistful former English majors and the sort of matron who tours stately homes in white athletic shoes, marvelling over the lifestyles of the rich and historical.
Then came Downton Abbey, the object of almost as much fascination as the Harry Potter books before it. The drama, which debuted in the US in 2011, was the highestrated cable or broadcast show when its thirdseries finale aired in February this year, reaching 12.3 million viewers and becoming the most popular drama in the history of the Public Broadcasting Service. It has a remarkably broad appeal. The celebrities who claim to be obsessed with it include the late-night talk-show hosts Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson, the comedian Patton Oswalt (who live-tweets each episode), the country star Reba McEntire and the singer Katy Perry, as well as bona fide film stars such as Harrison Ford (who has hinted that he would consider a role in the programme) and the hip-hop singers Jay Electronica and Sean “Diddy” Combs.
The last example may raise eyebrows, but Diddy did make a hilarious parody video for the website Funny or Die, in which he was inserted into various scenes from the series playing an invented character, Lord Wolcott. He professes to be an “Abbey-head”, but since he pronounces it “Downtown Abbey”, the sincerity of that claim is subject to some doubt. If Diddy really is an Abbey-head, he’s got plenty of company. There has been an Abbey-themed promo spot for The Simpsons (Simpton Abbey, in which a pink-glazed doughnut was placed on a china plate with silver tongs) and more parody videos than you can count, including a drag version, a Breaking Bad version (produced by the satirical TV pundit Stephen Colbert), a Sesame Street version, The Fresh Prince of Downton Abbey and, naturally, a “Harlem Shake” version. Michelle Obama is such a fan that last autumn she requested advance DVDs of the third series from ITV and invited two of the show’s stars, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, to the White House.
Why do Americans love Downton Abbey so much? More than one Brit has asked me this before carefully explaining that, in the UK, the series is viewed not as top-drawer drama, but rather as the British equivalent of American prime-time soaps such as Dynasty. Don’t we realise that? In fact, we do – well, many of us do – and we relish the camp element of Downton Abbey, which is why there are all those parodies. But yes, there are other Americans who think of it as their foray into “classy” entertainment (as Harrison Ford called it), because it’s full of fancy English people, is set in the past and airs on public television. That the show appeals to different audiences in different ways is surely one of the secrets of its success.
Perhaps the most benighted critics are those would-be arbiters anxious to inform the rest of us that mistaking this sort of thing for art just won’t do. Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker welcomed the rather glum BBC adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End starring Benedict Cumberbatch with hurrahs, averring that he could not “stomach” Downton Abbey, on account of “its blizzards of anachronisms, its absurd soap-operatics, and its Oprah-style oversharing between aristos and servants”.
Cumberbatch similarly dismissed Downton as a “nostalgia trip” that was “fucking atrocious”. Daniel Day-Lewis says he’s never watched it because “that is why I left England” and Jeremy Irons has likened it to a Ford Fiesta, which “will get you there and give you a good time” but not much more. (This from a star of The Borgias!) Irons hopes Downton Abbey will serve as a gateway drug to Shakespeare, apparently assuming that viewers might never otherwise be exposed to the Bard but now they’ve got a load of Lady Mary, it’s a slippery slope to King Lear.
The “nostalgia” to which Cumberbatch referred comes up a lot in a related form of concern-trolling surrounding Downton Abbey. Doesn’t the show, commentators ask with furrowed brow, fetishise and fawn over an outdated and unjust class system? Isn’t it troubling that the American public, despite its much-touted embrace of equality and meritocracy, gobbles up this “steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery”, to quote the British-born historian Simon Schama, in a desperate search for “something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present”? Schama can’t abide Downton Abbey, he wrote on the Daily Beast, having been subjected in his youth to “the motheaten haughtiness of the toffs” at a country house much like the titular abbey.
That is just the point, though: Americans may have suffered class wounds of their own, but not at the hands of toffs, whether motheaten or freshly laundered. Most Americans don’t even know what a toff is and the finer delineations of the British social hierarchy – the way a person’s speech can immediately place him or her in a very precise slot, for example – are largely lost on us. We have regional accents and stereotypes to go with them, but nothing so exquisitely telling as that. For Americans, the interlocking, classdefined relationships in a British country house in the early 20th century are intriguingly peculiar (why should Lord Grantham be taken aback to find himself related to a doctor?) or comically absurd (why must Daisy be kept out of sight of the family and its guests? And ironing the newspapers? Really?).
Americans have always found British manners and formality amusing, especially from a distance, where it is a lot less intimidating. There are few distances more unassailable than a century. The geographic, historical and cultural gulf between modern America and Edwardian Britain gives the milieu of Downton Abbey an exotic, theme-park quality. Even if Americans might daydream about what it would be like to work as a housemaid at the abbey or swan around in Lady Gran - tham’s spectacular dresses while being waited on hand and foot, neither scenario is even remotely an option for us.
For all its unfamiliarity, however, Downton Abbey wouldn’t speak to American audiences at all if they didn’t find much to identify with in the travails and intrigues that go on upstairs and down in the scullery. “I think most of the stories are about emotional situations that everyone can understand,” Julian Fellowes, the series creator and writer, platitudinously told the New York Times.
Downton Abbey as a dramatic setting has the advantage of being both a household and a workplace, two sites that have always proven fertile ground for conflict and pathos. But there is another parallel that American viewers often bring into play when engaging with this and other stories about the British class system: high school.
American popular culture has been reima - gining 19th-century British society as a version of American high school for decades, just not in genres where it’s likely to attract the interest of critics. Romance novels have taught American readers to understand the British class system in this way. Anyone who has read a decent amount of 19th-century British fiction or social histories of the period would likely be perplexed upon dipping into one of the thousands of “Regency” and “Victorian” romances published here every year.
The characters in these historical romances don’t behave anything like the British aristocrats of the 1800s – or like any other 19thcentury Brits, for that matter. But if you’re looking for the “blizzards of anachronisms”, “absurd soap-operatics” and “Oprah-style oversharing” to which Hertzberg objects in Downton Abbey, well, pick up a paperback and pull up a chair.
In place of the captain of the football team, the Regency romance has a duke, and instead of a shy bespectacled girl, the heroine is likely to be a young lady of ordinary looks and no fortune whose inner merits the hero, alone of all others, readily perceives. Instead of a catty cheerleader as the heroine’s romantic rival, there is a society beauty, complete with a mean-girl clique that might as well have been lifted right out of a John Hughes film. The sexual mores of the characters’ social circle, instead of being founded in the Christian morality, male supremacism and class pre - judices of 19th-century England, is merely a matter of prudish scandalmongering and mean-spirited, small-town gossip. The intricate, exclusionary subtlety of centuries of upper-class manners gets translated into the bratty snootiness of American adolescence.
Downton Abbey may not fit as exactly on to the familiar stock figures of the American high school but the rigid, claustrophobic social hierarchies of the high-school experience remain the easiest point of reference for US viewers. Lord Grantham resembles the highminded yet out-of-touch principal and his daughters the student body’s most popular belles, girls whose social and romantic lives serve as universal topics of conversation. Matthew Crawley is the new transfer student, who turns out to be a catch despite his modest background. The conniving O’Brien and Thomas are recognisable as the bullies who afflict so many sensitive adolescents, Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes function as the wise and seasoned teachers who can be counted on to intervene before things get too bad, and Daisy, with her string of hopeless crushes, speaks to many a formerly dreamy mouse.
All this probably explains why Schama, who has experienced the real thing, finds the setting of Downton Abbey oppressive while Americans see it as a great-looking venue, ripe with dishy spats, romantic triangles and overwrought drama. It’s not that Americans don’t grasp the injustice in the social hierarchy of Edwardian Britain; they just don’t take it seriously. It is part of the (dubious) mythos of American life that some day the tables will be turned: the ugly duckling could become a swan and the nerd a master of the universe.
For Americans, high school is rife with cruelty and unfairness, with an elite that benefits from the arbitrary blessings of birth (money, good looks, athletic prowess), but it doesn’t necessarily define you for life. High school is formative, but not conclusive. This is why you will never see an equivalent series set in, say, an antebellum plantation in the American South. Not only is that hierarchy way too close to home but (whether we admit it or not) we all know we haven’t yet escaped it.
While most of us, sooner or later, graduate from high school, to escape the British class system you have to get out of Britain entirely (like Daniel Day-Lewis). Americans look at the confining roles imposed on the characters in their beloved Downton Abbey and tell themselves that if worse comes to worst, they can always emigrate.
Laura Miller is the co-founder of and senior writer at salon.com