Downton Fever: How a British period drama managed to get the reality-TV generation addicted

Illustration by Kathryn Macnaughton

Illustration by Kathryn Macnaughton

Browsing the newsstand at London’s Heathrow Airport last November, I found tabloids full of footballers’ wives, all orange of complexion and platform of shoe, and the glossier monthlies stocked with society girls. But whether their readers’ penchant was for players’ wives or the polo set, every magazine I read contained at least one story extolling the brilliance of Downton Abbey.

Meanwhile, in North America, despite winning six Emmys last September, Downton Abbey hadn’t yet broken into the mainstream. The ITV1 television series set in World War I–era England chronicles in equal measure the lives of the upper-class Crawley family and their servants. A quiet but respectable viewership had discovered the show in its first season on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic, but when season two began at the start of 2012, we fell into the grips of a collective Downton fever like a heartbroken fiancée succumbing to Spanish flu. This might be because Downton offers something for almost everyone. There is the wealth and glamour of the Crawley family, who dress every night for dinner as though they’re attending the Met Ball. Downstairs, the servants’ plays for household power mirror the tension of Glengarry Glen Ross, except here it’s “A-Always, B-Be, C-Conspiring.” And juxtaposed against the feeling that you’re watching a classic literary adaptation are elements that reflect a contemporary audience, from caught-in-the-act trysts to the characters learning how to use a telephone. Downton is no Greek drama, with the action happening offstage.

Of course, there is romance. The will-they-or-won’t-they relationships of two sets of lovers have kept viewers tuning in: more than five million watched the season two finale. In Canada, Downton is now enjoying a run on VisionTV on Wednesday evenings.

“There’s a cadre of people who are watching it because it’s an allowable soap,” says New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum. “It’s dressed up in all sorts of fancy class indicators including, but not limited to, England, PBS and historical times, and rich people in large country houses.” And, as Nussbaum adds, it is very well made, costing roughly $1.6 million per episode to produce.

It’s also extremely fun to talk about. With season two came online recaps from New York magazine’s Vulture and Vanity Fair’s The Hollywood Blog (we at FASHION produced a wonderful one). Further signs of the show’s reach include character-inspired Twitter accounts and countless memes—all that’s missing is a Tumblr of Ryan Gosling Hey Girl–ing the women of Downton.