‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ comes more than a decade after ‘Downton Abbey’ captured the attention of audiences around the world. It went from “just another British drama” to an international cultural phenomenon that sparked six TV seasons and two movies (and more). The success of “Downton” places it among the most iconic period dramas in television history, but its legacy is not without complications.
When it debuted in 2010, “Downton” breathed new life into period TV drama. At the time, correctly or not, the perception of period television dramas was largely BBC and/or PBS adaptations of classic literature. The genre had a reputation for being dull and stuffy with rare exceptions. “Downton” has become a phenomenon for its glamorous, soapy storylines, not to mention its willingness to toe the “scandal” line and its decidedly romantic heart.
More than anything, the secret to “Downton” and its enduring success lies in its characters. From the first episode, the series manages two things very well: deftly juggling a surprisingly sprawling cast and shaping characters that are both archetypal and unique. The reason we kept coming back season after season was simply to see what happened to these characters who found a place in our hearts. This is what pushed us through plots that could sometimes become ridiculous or repetitive (do we really Anna and/or Bates have to be accused of a crime almost every season?). For many period dramas, there is an inherent difficulty in connecting with the audience; the challenge is to make these people who have very different lives from ours feel close. “Downton” cracked the code through an alchemical combination of writing and casting, and while many other shows have tried to replicate it, the results have rarely achieved the same feeling.
That being said, it’s also worth considering that “Downton” is part of a style of period dramas that isn’t necessarily the future of the genre. “Downton” and its ilk are the epitome of traditional period drama: glitzy, romantic and melodramatic stories about the lives of the wealthy and titled. From time to time, the people who work for them also get some screen time, but they are always firmly held in their “place”. As a result, popular culture has an extremely narrow perspective on history, which stories from these eras are told and how different groups are portrayed.
A show like “Downton” can be limited in its imagination because its very appeal (watching elegant, wealthy people and their messy lives!) rests on acceptance of the class system (and race, gender and sexuality) at its base. “Downton” is deeply, deeply committed to the idea that aristocracy is good, and it’s sad to see that system in trouble after World War I. Alternative ideas about class, politics and economics are reviled, mocked or written down. Characters who are not in favor of the current system and norms are either written off as abrasive villains (Miss Bunting), seen as idiots (Daisy), or pushed towards more “acceptable” viewpoints, except when the story requires additional drama ( TO M). Yes, many period dramas are set in times of intense class, racial, and gender prejudice, but there are still so many other stories (including happy, soapy ones) worth watching. be told.
Today, period drama is shifting (slowly) to center other kinds of stories. “The Gilded Age” — created by the same team behind “Downton” — encompasses the world of upper-class black families in late 1800s New York City. “Sanditon” – an ITV/PBS production, like “Downton” – features a biracial West Indian heiress. Shows like “Anne Boleyn” and “Bridgerton” dreamed up color-sensitive alternate universes for lavish, dramatic period pieces with all the tropes we know and love. And those are just the glitzy, high-profile shows; there are many more. We have “Bridgerton” style shows that feature alternate histories as well as tales dedicated to diving into the true stories of a wider range of communities and historical figures.
There will always be shows about rich, titled people wearing nice clothes and causing drama. “Downton” is one of the crown jewels of this traditional perception of period drama, and its success has paved the way for more and more historical tales to find an audience. It’s truly an example of how this slot can be at its best: full of complicated characters, heart-touching stories, and incredible attention to historical detail. “Downton,” however, is only part of the story when it comes to period dramas, and we can’t wait to see the genre continue to flourish and grow.