America’s love affair with Downton Abbey

I’ve been invited tonight (Sunday) to a Downton Abbey party. I’m not sure what to wear — do I go for the downstairs maid’s uniform or totally upscale it with a Lady Mary ensemble? Will I aim for the dry wit of the Dowager Countess, or the cutting bite of Thomas the butler chap?

richardegrantdowntonBut wait! I have a confession to make as Season 5 airs in the USA tonight on PBS. I haven’t actually watched the show since the end of Season 2. I know, shocking! How on earth will I know what’s going on? Well, I’ll cheat and look at the InterWeb for the plot line, and I know from all the furore that Lady Mary’s chap died and is now in Hollywood 2 stone lighter, and that Bates is a miserable git, and the other Lady Somebody had a baby, and that George Clooney is in it, and Richard E Grant (one of my fave actors) pops up too. So, job done.

What is about Downton Abbey that makes my American cousins want to have high tea and wear large hats? My American friends Elizabeth and Edo attended a Downton Abbey premiere party a few weeks ago and I asked them to write all about their experience and the appeal of the very English show.

This is their lowdown on Downton…..

Last Thursday my husband and I escaped the suburbs to attend a screening of the first episode of Downton Abbey’s Season Five.

lizedodowntonOn a purely superficial note, I adore Lady Mary’s gowns, The Dowager Countess’s wit, and Sybil’s dearness. I’ll concede that argument that this is simply a soap opera dressed up with British accents is not without its merits. We are no doubt seduced by the sexy plot lines: children born out-of-wedlock, premarital sex, deception, murder, infidelity, and rape. However, I believe the American obsession with this series is based on more than the ability to indulge in salacious television viewing while satisfying an intellectual need. Yes, the plots may at times verge on the absurd but the writing always is brilliant.

The American obsession is owed to something deeper. There is something escapist in watching individuals who have assumed positions in society based exclusively upon ancestry or marriage. This completely contradicts what so many Americans consider a common and core value: hard work and determination will result in financial success and prestige. I suspect that this speaks not only to the American obsession with Downton but also with princesses, real or imaginary.

We also, and I do not believe this is purely an American phenomena but rather a human one, like to watch order upended. Be it reality shows, documentaries, sitcoms or the nightly news we are drawn to witnessing chaos unfold in other people’s lives. As an American I watch the reordering of Downton’s social structure with a certain satisfaction. It’s awful, I admit, but we delight in American fortunes propping up British dynasties. We celebrate Jeanette Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill to you Brits. This no doubt harkens back to our Revolutionary War: a minor blip in British textbooks but a proud moment in American history. Yes, we do take satisfaction, perhaps childish and immature, but delightful nonetheless, in propping up and supporting institutions that once held us down.

Let us not forget that we also love the splendor and grandeur of Downton. We consider the British erudite. So few of us who watch Downton would have ever deigned to watch Dallas. Despite what we say about eschewing hierarchy we have created our uniquely American system of classifying. We don’t use titles and status does not necessarily pass down familial lines but we do define others. Do you watch Masterpiece Theatre or Entertainment Television? Do you listen to NPR or listen to pop radio? Do you read the New York Times or People Magazine? We embrace a system we profess to detest. We are, like my beloved Downton characters, perfectly imperfect.

Enjoy it tonight, wherever you are, and no spoilers please Brits!