“I Must Have Said It Wrong”: Decoding Downton Abbey’s Television DNA

What is it about 'Downton Abbey' that makes the show so addictive? Perhaps it's that the show isn't just another British period drama, but a televisual magpie that steals from soap operas, comedy and US dramas.

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Carnival Film & Television

Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, left, and Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson

Downton Abbey is the Beatles of period drama television.

Ok, there are more than four people involved in Downton, and their harmonies really aren’t that great just yet, let’s be honest — but there is something to the comparison. Downton Abbey is an unexpected pop culture phenomenon that first overtook the United Kingdom before making its way across the Atlantic to do the same to the U.S., making fans out of those who would otherwise be dismissive of the genre and leaving a trail of unsuccessful imitators in its wake as they attempt to fill the void between releases with something that’s oh-so-close to the original but somehow missing at least one essential ingredient.

Consider the BBC’s 2011-2012 dour, Nazi-filled revival of Upstairs, Downstairs, which replaced Downton Abbey‘s romance and appeal with stories of extra-marital affairs, unhappiness that smothers almost every character and a villain so cartoonishly drawn that you wouldn’t have been that surprised had she turned to the camera and snickered evilly as she destroyed marriages or collaborated with the Nazis one more time. If that doesn’t work for you, there’s also last year’s international co-produced mini-series Titanic, which tried to bring the Downton touch to the real-life nautical tragedy but lapsed into maudlin disaster movie territory all too quickly despite the period costumes. In both cases, viewers may find themselves wondering whither the whimsy and cosiness of Downton Abbey — well, if they hadn’t already stopped watching either show for failing to live up to Downton. (The revived Upstairs, Downstairs was cancelled after two seasons for poor ratings, suggesting that many did indeed abandon the show for not offering the right stuff).

Now, the wait is almost over. This Sunday sees the long-awaited return for Americans of Downton Abbey, ending months of anguish for those who have been stricken not only by the need for further installments of the popular PBS period drama but also a desire to hide from online spoilers from those who caught the third season when it premiered on British television in September. (2012′s Christmas Special proved especially spoiler-y, making the Internet a particularly dangerous place to be for those awaiting the new season.) But what makes Downton work, when other, similar shows don’t?

(MORE: Downton Abbey: Three Reasons We Can’t Wait for Next Season)

The apparent inability to repeat Downton Abbey‘s success doesn’t mean that the show came out of nowhere. When it premiered on television in Britain for the first time, television critic Viv Groskop pointed out the many familiar elements in the first episode. “If you were playing costume drama bingo (and, please, consider it), you’d have a full house by the end of the opening credits,” she wrote. “All the regulation elements are here. Conniving under-footman. Wallis Simpson-style American heiress. Bitch-from-hell lady-in waiting. Plump garrulous cook. Skinny garrulous housemaid. Tick, tick, tick. Hurrah! There’s even a lame valet with shrapnel in his knee — played with proud understatement by Lark Rise’s Brendan Coyle, fast shaping up to be the ultimate period underdog. We can surely rely upon him to weep, nobly and unnoticed, in every episode.”

Downton proudly continues the Grand Tradition of Great British Television Period Dramas, following in the footsteps of such earlier classics — all much-beloved in America — as Brideshead Revisited, The House of Elliott and the original 1970s incarnation of Upstairs, Downstairs. The latter of those shows in particular is reminiscent of Downton in many ways: Both Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton are centered around the interrelated lives of the servants and family of a particular household during roughly the same time period — somewhat impressively, the original run of Upstairs, Downstairs managed to span the years 1903-1930 in its original five year run; Downtown Abbey began in 1912 and by the end of the 2012 Christmas episode has reached 1921 — tracking the characters’ personal relationships and the world events unfolding around them. This similarity hasn’t gone unnoticed by critics, with Mary McNamara of the LA Times describing Downton Abbey as “this generation’s Upstairs, Downstairs, both in theme… and in stature,” while the Spectator‘s David Breaker was less charitable, complaining that Downton was “a totally generic rival” to the earlier show.

That isn’t to say that Downton Abbey is simply a retread of a four-decades-old series. The two shows are tonally very different: Up Down (to use the nickname the older series was given by its fanbase) was surprisingly humorless, coated in a dourness as if it was trying to educate the viewer about “how life used to be” as much as it was trying to entertain. In comparison, a large part of Downton Abbey‘s charm comes from its occasionally hilarious melodrama — amnesiac potential relatives wrapped in bandages! — and gleeful swerves towards soap operatics. That’s one of Downton‘s secret ingredients.

“I have a penchant for soap that informs my work,” Downton creator and head writer Julian Fellowes admitted in a Vanity Fair profile last year, specifically mentioning the long-running British soap Coronation Street as a show he appreciates. Coronation Street is a soap opera known for its use of comedy to underscore and occasionally undermine the more traditional soap sturm und drang, a tendency that Downton Abbey has managed to quietly incorporate. It’s easy to write off Downton Abbey‘s excess as simple melodrama, but I’d argue that both the show is more self-aware than that, and that what we’re actually watching is Downton-as-sly-comedy; without that, all you’re left with is… Well, the revival of Upstairs, Downstairs.

(MORE: Downton Abbey Watch: Mastercheese Theater)

There’s another major influence that may be overlooked on this side of the Atlantic: American television. While many Americans claim that Downton Abbey is so special because of its classic “Britishness” (really, Englishness; there is little Scottish, Irish or Welsh culture on offer in the worldview presented in the show), the format and pacing of the show bears a distinct influence from the contemporary United States. “There are lots of American shows I admire,” Fellowes told the New York Times in an interview earlier this year, going on to name, somewhat unexpectedly, Mad Men, Glee and Sex and the City as favorite series. “The American series have a tremendous energy which I admire, and I hope I have emulated in Downton. In a way it’s a period drama and it has all these stories packed in. That, I think, has much more to with the American tradition of television than the British, actually. Sometimes these distinctions are meaningless because it becomes absorbed within the culture. But I think the Americans, with West Wing and NYPD Blue and E.R. and Chicago Hope – this tremendously energized, multinarrative, multilevel show – I think that was a reinvention of television that has affected us all.”

The mention of those last four shows in particular is interesting because Downton Abbey was originally conceived as a procedural drama by Gareth Neame, the executive producer who originally brought the basic pitch to Fellowes. “The setting of a country house,” Neame has said, “is a very good precinct to build a TV show around, like a hospital or a workplace.” That Fellowes took that idea in another direction was lucky happenstance: While mulling over the procedural idea, he was reading a book about American women coming to England at the end of the 19th century and marrying into the aristocracy. “It occurred to me that while it must have been wonderful for these girls to begin with, what happened 25 years later when they were freezing in a house in Cheshire aching for Long Island?” Fellowes explained, years later. “That was where it all started.” (That book, Carol Wallace and Gail MacColl’s To Marry An English Lord, is of course now marketed by its publisher with a Downton Abbey mention in the first sentence of its blurb.)

There’s something about this mix of influences and ingredients that shores up my Downton Abbey as the Beatles argument. Like the Beatles, Downton started from a place of imitation and cultural envy. Just as the Beatles started off trying to recreate the American music that they listened to, mixing in their own British influences and getting wonderfully lost along the way before creating something new and exciting, so Downton Abbey has become if not greater than the sum of its parts then at least something unexpected, enticingly novel and entirely difficult to define properly. What makes Downton so difficult to copy is that it is, in many ways, an accidental collision of ideas, talent and timing that defies analysis and deconstruction in the same way that no one can truly explain why “Please, Please Me” hits the right note the first time you hear it.

Of course, we should appreciate Downton Abbey now while we can. After all, we can’t be that far away from the self-indulgent psychedelic phase and painful break-up process. Just remember to avoid the solo projects that follow.