The “Downton Abbey” phenomenon

I overheard Rush blurting out some big “Downton Abbey” spoilers on the air today.  I’m not sure if the Spoiler Statute of Limitations has expired yet, as it hasn’t been a full week since the finale for American viewers.  I have never made so much as a Twitter reference to a plot twist from a TV show less than one month old without someone angrily shouting “SPOILERS!”  I guess that’s a consequence of the VCR-DVR-Video On Demand era.  In the old days, pretty much everyone who was going to see Sunday night’s season finale of a TV show saw it on Sunday night

I once joked that Jonah Goldberg of National Review and I were going to become the founders, and pretty much sole members, of the conservative “Downton Abbey” fan club, but boy were we wrong.  Fellow righties came flying in from all around to declare they were fans of the show too, and not just because their Significant Others made them watch it.  I detected a bit of that girlfriend-loves-this-show sheepishness at first, but it’s now completely evaporated.

So what’s the deal with “Downton Abbey?”  Why the particular embrace from American conservatives?  Of course it has the obvious non-partisan virtues: stellar cast, fantastic production values.  But plenty of people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching any other soap opera, no matter how well-produced, love this one.

It’s easy to cite the power of nostalgia, the window it offers into a bygone era, which is also a strong component of another big hit, “Mad Men.”  It’s fascinating to think these entirely alien worlds existed only 50 and 100 years ago – and the world of “Downton” would have seemed exotic to the British characters on “Mad Men” (poor Lane Pryce!) even though they were, in essence, the children and grandchildren of the World War I generation.  Technology drives social change, and both happened so incredibly quickly in the Twentieth Century.

But if I had to put my finger on the appeal of “Downton Abbey” to conservative fans, it’s the strong themes of obligation and responsibility that run through the show.  The aristocrats speak often of their duty to King, country, and the people of their county.  The servants address their duties, both to the manor and each other, with the utmost gravity.  Nobody whines.  Not even when they’re fighting through the hell of trench warfare.

Also, one of the first big takeaways a new “Downton” viewer comes away with is that the servants have a structure as strong and aristocratic as the lords and ladies of the manor; the formidable butler is a mirror image of the Earl, and actually spends more time giving people orders.  It’s interesting to note how those structures repeat themselves across history.  Today the world’s great egalitarian Republic finds itself with an aristocracy, a ruling class, every bit as entrenched and privileged as dear old Robert and his tragically death-prone family.