Downton Abbey and the Double-Edged Sword of Popularity

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Back in December 2010, some television critics began to talk about a British import called Downton Abbey, which supposedly took the U.K. by storm.  With my penchant for English period dramas, I sat down and watched it when it first aired on PBS.  And I loved it.  I watched the first episode (well, PBS’s reedit of the first episode and part of the second episode, as I soon found out) two more times that week.  Over the course of the next several months, I introduced the show to a few family members and several friends, who in turn told others about it.

At that time, Downton Abbey was still unknown: we were spreading the word about a show about which most people hadn’t yet heard.  And at least in the U.S., Downton was still an unencumbered critical darling.

What happened next was an explosion of popularity in the U.S.  I imagine that the period drama lovers, PBS fans, and others who tuned into Downton Abbey loved it.  I mean loved it.  If they were like me, they told their friends and family.  They probably spread the word online, too.  Combined with the critical support and the numerous Emmys, this made Downton suddenly a bona fide hit on this side of the Atlantic as well.

Suddenly, Downton Abbey was no longer that special unknown show but rather that juggernaut that everybody and his uncle were watching.  And in addition to the outpouring of love for the show with the parody Twitter accounts, rap songs, and Tumblrs galore was a new legion of detractors.  They actually started speaking up with some of the, err, soapier elements of the first season.  But since the second season amplified some of these elements, Downton has faced more criticism.  “It’s nothing more than a daytime soap with evening gowns and English accents!” cry the naysayers.

I sometimes wonder how I would feel about Downton Abbey if I had started to watch it after hearing the hype.  Would it have lived up to such lofty expectations?  Would I have felt blasé about it and found it all overrated?  All I know is this: I am a Downton Abbey fan, and I appreciate that there are now so many others who love the show with whom I can discuss it.

Other parts of the popularity boom have, of course, been good.  ITV and particularly PBS can only be happy about the amount of attention they have gotten from Downton’s success.  Meanwhile, the cast and creative team – who, beyond Julian Fellowes, Maggie Smith, and Elizabeth McGovern, consist of people who were hardly household names before the show became a phenomenon – have not only gained international acclaim but have also seen their profiles elevated with the show’s success.  But with that, of course, comes problems for the Downton.  A couple of the stars are leaving the show to pursue other projects, and I really cannot imagine how the story would progress without one of them in particular.

Of course, I’m thrilled for Downton Abbey, its creative team, and its cast.  The attention they are getting from the show’s buzz is well-deserved.  But with great popularity comes great scrutiny.  And Downton Abbey had better be sure that it stays in mainstream favor.   Now that a fourth season has been ordered, Downton is becoming older by British television standards.  Let’s hope that it can keep up the quality in face of pressures and problems that come with its popularity.  I would hate to see it lose what made it so great in the first place.

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13 thoughts on “Downton Abbey and the Double-Edged Sword of Popularity

  1. I really hope, like you, that Downton Abbey doesn’t become the victim of its own success. I almost cringe, thinking of a 4th season – will it measure up to the first three seasons?

    Ah well, in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy the gorgeous sets and costumes, along with the first-rate acting.

    • Yeah, I’m also worried about the possibility of a fourth season. We’ll just have to see. I’m sure the sets, costumes, and acting will remain intact, though, and Maggie Smith is confirmed to return, so it should nevertheless remain very watchable.

  2. Like you, I happened upon Downton Abbey during its first season showing on PBS, before it became a runaway hit. I spread the word to friends and family about this little gem I stumbled upon. And then by the next season it seemed EVERYONE was talking about Downton Abbey. I also wonder how I’d feel if I started watching the show after all the hype started around it.

    I am a bit concerned about the fourth season myself. When I first watched Downton I knew there was the potential for three seasons, and that Julian Fellowes had a possible three season arc in mind for the show, if it were successful enough to last that long. So in my mind I always thought there would only be three. The fact that there’s now a fourth season being created makes me worried that the storytelling is going to suffer as Fellowes and his team work to come up with new plot ideas for the characters. Sometimes I think it’s better to quit while you’re ahead. And if Fellowes originally envisioned a three season series (I can’t remember the source now, but I know I remember reading it), he should have stuck to his vision.

    That being said, I love Downton Abbey and I will continue to watch it…which probably explains why they are making another season, as I am sure many others will continue to tune in as well.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Diana! I also remember reading that Fellowes had planned a three-season story (and I too can’t remember where I read it). Last year, they had locked in several key cast members for potential seasons four and five, and I thought it seemed odd that the story would continue that long. With how the story is going now in season three, wrapping it up at the end of this season seems fitting to me (especially with you-know-who leaving). But we’ll just have to see where Fellowes takes us. Like you, I’m not abandoning Downton any time soon.

      • I’m glad I’m not the only one who remembers reading something about only having a three season arc! And I agree with you, with you-know-who leaving, it seems even more fitting that they really should have ended with this season. It will be interesting to see what they come up with for season four.

  3. I feel like Downton isn’t that big in Canada yet because none of our major networks carry it (the first season just ended on some channel I’ve never heard of). Anyone that’s watched it, got it online. I discovered the DVDs on Amazon thanks to their fancy / creepy recommendation emails.

    I LOVE Downton but it’s not perfect. In fact, I find the story lines pretty ridiculous. I just keep going back for the exquisite set and costumes. Yep, I watch Downton because I’m real superficial like that.

    I do find it funny that so many of Downton’s misfortunes come from Canada. Like the botched railway that bankrupts Robert. Or the fake cousin from the Princess Pats. Stuff only we would notice. I wish more Canadians would watch so I could discuss.

    • I had no idea that Downton isn’t airing on a major Canadian network. Interesting for such a worldwide hit. And I also never noticed the Canadian connections to the misfortunes – it does seem rather odd now that you bring it up. Thanks for the insights!

  4. I’ve been a fan of the show since it first aired here in the U.S., too. I didn’t know some of the stars are leaving — I’ll have to google that and find out who. 🙂

  5. I enjoyed “DOWNTON ABBEY” very much, when I first saw Season One. But . . . it does not represent the best that Britain can offer in terms of period drama. Honestly, I’ve seen UK and American period dramas that are a lot better. As much as I enjoy it, I do believe it is a bit overrated. I view it on the artistic equivalent of the television adaptation of John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy”.

    • I too have seen period dramas of a higher intellectual quality than Downton Abbey, but I think that what makes it so good is precisely the addictive appeal it has. Sure, that makes it a tad melodramatic and predictable, but something has to be said for how a show set 100 years ago became such a breakout hit.

      Of course, since it’s such a big hit, it’s bound to be seen as overrated. Sometimes, I wonder myself if it’s worthy of the amount of acclaim and attention it’s getting. But the first season of Downton actually holds the Guinness World Record for “Highest Critical Review Ratings for a TV Series,” which hypothetically demonstrates that there is quality to it. (And I haven’t yet seen North and South, so I can’t comment on that.)

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts!

  6. These days, I tend to compare “DOWNTON ABBEY” with “CHARMED” – entertaining, yet shallow and flawed. Okay, there is no such thing as a perfect television series. But after three seasons, I have finally realized that “DOWNTON ABBEY” is a lush-looking series that is at heart . . . mediocre. This has certainly been obvious during Seasons Two and Three.

    • My love for the first season would prevent me from thinking Downton mediocre, but I definitely see where you’re coming from. I wrote this before seeing S3 in its entirety, and I thought that the first half of the season was particularly weak, though the pacing problems have been noticeable since S2. But, yes, Downton‘s strengths have always been the gorgeous visuals – and the Dowager’s witty lines. At least by this time, I’ve lowered by expectations a tad for S4, but I’ll still be watching. Thanks for stopping by!

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