The US cult of the British series Downton Abbey

downton abbeyLa série britannique Downton Abbey, qui  avait une audience déjà très importante en Grande-Bretagne, est également un franc succès aux Etats-Unis. Comment  expliquer l’intérêt des Américains pour cette série ?  


Downton Abbey is a British drama television series created by Julian Fellowes. The series was first broadcast in 2010 in the United Kingdom and from January 2011 in the United States on PBS, the American public broadcasting service. The fact that the series is aired on a free channel makes it possible to target a wider audience in the US than only the audience used to watching expensive drama on paid-for cable channels.

The series, set in the Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey, depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the early twentieth century. Of course all the dramatic historic events that occur in the first two decades of the century greatly influence the lives of the main characters. The series begins with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The heirs of the domain all perish, thus leaving the succession open. The traditional superiority of the aristocracy is going to be progressively undermined.

This is the most successful foreign series ever imported to the United States and the series won numerous awards, including a Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries or Television Film and it has garnered more Primetime Emmy nominations than any other non American TV series: 27 in total.

Although America declared its independence from Great Britain 237 years ago, American fascination with British accents, traditions and culture has remained strong. Even though Julian Fellowes has declared American actors « too contemporary » for period drama, the presence of the Oscar-winning American actress Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson has allowed for an easy popularity in the United States where she is really famous. But American influence does not stop there! Indeed, American historical events play a major part in the context of the show: the series begins with the announcement of the shipwreck of the Titanic, followed during the second season by the American involvement in the first world war …

Members of the cast have all given various explanations to account for the success of this English show in the United States. According to Michelle Dockery (who plays Mary in the show), the reasons why the show appeals to people in the States are, firstly the talent of Julian Fellowes who succeeded in “creating 18 lead characters each with their own story lines”; secondly the realistic framework with filming in Highclere Castle, stunning costumes… which creates a nostalgic feeling for the period. Hugh Bonneville (who plays Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham), attributes the popularity of the show to the fact that it is not based on a famous novel, which generates more suspense for the viewers who cannot guess what is going to happen. Julian Fellowes suggested an additional reason for this success: the Americans would like to see « real life » in their drama and this is what they managed to do by mixing all sorts of lives in one single show.

The modernity of the series also plays a role in its success.  The issue of homosexuality for example is tackled with the character of Thomas who is forced to hide his homosexuality. Similarly, the character of Sybil shows the struggle for gender equality with her fight for the right to vote. In Downton Abbey lurks a serious message: times change and you have to adapt to survive. America is evolving and in light of such changes, it is easy for them to recognize themselves in the mirror offered by the evolution of the British aristocracy.

Thus, we can see that the success of Downton Abbey can have multiple explanations. But this series is not only successful in the United States: it is broadcast in more than 100 countries. In France in particular, since the end of 2011 TMC broadcasts the series. For the fans of the series (and future fans) Season 4 will air in England in September!

Mélina FRIZON & Emilie REMOND


One thought on “The US cult of the British series Downton Abbey

  1. Pingback: Is there a British cinema? | Frogs Save The Queen

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