Like many Americans, I spent Sunday evening watching the beginning of the final season of Downton Abbey. The show has become a huge hit, at least by PBS standards, with some 25,000,000 or so American viewers.
At first glance, this success is surprising. A few years ago, The Daily Mail ran a piece claiming that PBS had cut 2 hours from the running time of the first season, believing that many of the show’s references would be lost on Americans. PBS angrily denied the story, saying that only 35 minutes were cut. Regardless of how much was cut, it would not be surprising if some at PBS wondered whether Downton would be popular here. After all, the show presents a world defined by hierarchy and tradition, values antithetical to the egalitarianism professed by all the leading lights in contemporary America.
Of course, many of the story lines over the past five years have not moved in a conservative direction. But many have. (I particularly enjoyed last year’s final episode, which featured as powerful an evocation of the spirit of Christmas as I have seen on television in years). And the show does not do what so many other historical dramas and even histories do today and urge us to regard ourselves as superior to those who have gone before, and to view our ancestors as benighted at best and evil at worst. The show does not hold up the English aristocracy and those who served them as ridiculous or sinister, but asks us instead to view that world with understanding, even respect. Indeed, in one of the fascinating “Manners of Downton Abbey” specials that PBS sometimes airs along with the series, the show’s historical consultant offered a full-throated defense of the English aristocracy and of the ideal of noblesse oblige.
The real life counterparts of the show’s fictional Earl of Grantham knew that their good fortune was the result of an accident of birth and at least some of them acted accordingly. Those at the top of our own society deny that they owe any of their good fortune to an accident of birth and most of them act accordingly. Despite what we say we believe, maybe the success of Downton isn’t so surprising after all.
Thomas Piatak is a contributing editor to Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He writes from Cleveland, Ohio.