The fourth season of "Downton Abbey" has begun airing in the U.S., and a significant portion of the populace is once again caught up in the fortunes and misfortunes of the Earl of Grantham and his household, both above- and below-stairs. Why are we so interested?
To give it its due, the cast is phenomenal, the production values are tremendous, and the story is certainly “crowded with incident,” in the words, appropriately enough, of Oscar Wilde. These factors explain some of its popularity. But, as some critics have pointed out, in its broad outlines (especially in the crowding of incident) it is little more than a soap opera on steroids. So why, for instance, is there so much interest in an online quiz that purports to tell you which character you are most like? Why do we seem to want to dream ourselves into "Downton”?
"Downton" covers very little new territory. In the 1970s we had "Upstairs, Downstairs”; in the 1980s it was "Brideshead Revisited." Highclere Castle, the location used for the exteriors, and some interior scenes, of "Downton Abbey," also served as Totleigh Towers in the "Jeeves and Wooster" series in the 1990s — a light and highly uncritical look at the British upper class in the 1920s and ’30s, based on the works of P.G. Wodehouse.
Perhaps our interest is caught by this new iteration of an oft-told tale of generational conflict and change; of resistance and eventual acquiescence to new ideas and ways of doing things. Perhaps it is our seemingly perpetual fascination with the British class system — a hierarchy that was rigidly codified and maintained but, however problematic in our eyes, at least had the advantage of clarity. Although we rejected this system when we chose to become a democracy, it could be argued that the system that replaced it, one that is implicit and fluctuating, is equally problematic, and that we appreciate the honesty, while we deprecate the unfairness, of the society portrayed in "Downton."
Perhaps it is the opportunity to indulge our mingled jealousy and disdain of a lifestyle to which most of us will never become accustomed, although many of us would be happy to try — a voyeuristic fantasy that allows us to see, experience and judge without compromising our own national and class allegiance.
All of these speculations hinge on a very specific idea of who the “we” and “us” — the “Downton”-watchers — are. It seems likely that the show is primarily being watched by people who are more or less habitual consumers of public television. This demographic, at least stereotypically, consists largely of middle- to upper-middle-class, educated, liberal-leaning individuals. This audience might well be attracted by any or all of the reasons suggested above. However, from the first season onward, the show has garnered a much higher than usual viewership for its time slot on PBS. So who else is watching, and why?
Is the American aristocracy watching? Are they commiserating with Lord Grantham, or realizing the impossibility (and even the danger) of trying to remain sheltered and aloof from the world around them? Are the maids and the cooks and the chauffeurs watching? Does the benevolence and protection offered by Lord Grantham and his family appeal to them, or do they chafe under the condescension shown to their fictional counterparts, condescension that equally masks caring and contempt?
Or are we, perhaps, all watching together, quite simply, cheering the heroes (and heroines), hissing the villains, and enjoying the spectacle of another time and place comfortably distant from our own? And would that be a good or a bad thing?
John Hoffmire teaches at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford.