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.