For those of us waiting with baited breath, the day has almost arrived; just 17 days to go…. Yes! Downton Abbey returns for its third season January 6th, and I, for one, am counting down.
From the sinking of the Titanic that drowns the heir of Downton in the first episode of season one, sending the Crawley family in search of an appropriate match for their eldest daughter, Lady Mary, to the unfounded arrest of Lord Grantham’s valet Bates for the murder of his wife at the end of season two, the show has bridged the divide between the aristocracy and the servant classes with nostalgia, suggesting that the greater divide is that between England and the US, which we’ll see in the third season when the family faces a formidable foe – Shirley MacLaine playing Lady Cora’s mother.
A year ago, on January 7th, we were waiting to see how the family would cope with the biggest upheaval of its era: WWI. How would the writers satisfy our desire for post-Edwardian elegance while addressing the horrors of WWI? The answer is: they didn’t; given that this is a costume soap opera and not a documentary, the battles and brutal injuries were more fodder for the romances and intrigues at the Abbey. As Alessandra Stanley points out in a January 2012 NYT article, Downton Abbey does not offer critique of the class structure (as Atonement, Remains of the Day, or even as Downton’s author Julian Fellowes does in his screenplay Gosford Park) or significantly addresses the impetus or consequences of major historical events – even as they impacted the British class structure that the series is based on. The show is firmly focused on the personal and the melodramatic, which perhaps explains part of its appeal: as we struggle amid a long-term recession – and when the spaces we live in become more and more homogenous, saturated with corporate logos rather any local identities – nostalgia is sure to raise its head.
Drawing on our recurring yearning for a bygone era in which we never lived, there has been a huge nostalgic turn this past year with War Horse nominated and The Artist winning the Best Picture Oscar and when in Midnight in Paris the characters want to disappear into their chosen Golden Ages.
In the 1970s, there was Upstairs Downstairs, the original run of 55 episodes voted the most beloved series on Masterpiece, to which Downton Abbey is often compared. It is enjoying a renaissance: the first new episodes in 2010 drew an audience of 9 million in Britain, which would be the equivalent of 44 million American viewers. “It was a soap opera – a literate, classy, well-decorated, well-written soap opera…,” Rebecca Eaton, executive product of Masterpiece, has commented to account for the show’s success.
Publishers are hoping that the addiction for such TV show will spill off into a desire to learn more about the period and those who lived it. Using twitter as a way to engage fans, publishers are tweating links to their own books. Given that post-holiday January is a slow month for book sales, this is a smart move. For those who can’t wait, and who just crave more about the show itself, there’s The World of Downton Abbey or Chronicles: Downton Abbey that is marketed by St. Martin’s Press as “a perfect holiday gift for any fan,” but even last season there were Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, Below Stairs, What the Butler Winked At, and Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor, among other titles.
And it’s propelling an interest in learning more about the period too. Some viewers are buying poetry books by the War Poets and war literature, such as Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End, considered a great work of war literature, or more historical books like A Bitter Truth, about WWI, and The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.
While PBS viewers are generally a literary audience, Downton Abbey has also attracted more women 18-45 than Masterpiece Theatre otherwise draws, with 4.9 million viewers tuning in last season versus the 1.9 viewers PBS receives for its other programmes. And as we get closer to the night when we’ll sing “Auld Lang Syne,” these women – myself included – can take cheer that our desire for something gone, something past, will be satisfied on January 6th.
– Eleni Anastasiou, December 19th 2012