Before we say goodbye to the second edition of “Downton Abbey’s” intoxicating delights, a quick question about the biggest hit PBS has produced in years: Could the British program’s success reflect — or hasten — the broadening of America’s somewhat parochial TV palate?
Clearly, the media landscape has become more global, as evidenced by shifting box office receipts regarding theatrical tentpoles. It’s not uncommon now for returns from other territories to far surpass North America — a change that has grown more marked in recent years.
As has been noted, there are many international English-language performers — some using their natural accents, like Simon Cowell; others carefully hiding them, like “House’s” Hugh Laurie and “The Mentalist’s” Simon Baker — who rank among the biggest names in American television. Even so, scripted TV has flowed largely in one direction, with the U.S. providing a steady diet of programming to the world.
“Masterpiece” exec producer Rebecca Eaton calls the “Downton” phenomenon a “perfect storm,” highlighting the growth of social media as a means of spreading the word about programs, as well as ancillary platforms such as Netflix, which enable people to view such serialized fare in concentrated bursts.
According to Eaton, “Downton’s” success illustrates “a confluence of the way people consume television and the way they talk to each about what they’re consuming.” And while she notes “Masterpiece” has offered no shortage of great British drama through the years, the multiplier effect of those voices creating a digital water cooler and the freedom to view the program after its initial telecast “boosted it into another orbit from the one in which our shows usually reside.”
Any television breakthrough has a way of yielding copycats, and it’s unclear whether there will be a “Downton Abbey” effect, as Eaton puts it, while cautioning that replicating its success won’t be easy. “Something as perfect as ‘Downton’ doesn’t come along every day,” she says.
Although borders began to erode with a greater influx of reality-TV formats — series like “Survivor” and “American Idol,” adapted from European concepts — resistance to scripted shows remained. Indeed, the prevailing strategy has been to create U.S. versions of programs, from Britain’s “Skins” to Israel’s “In Treatment” to Denmark’s “The Killing.”
Slowly, however, that’s changing. Not only have U.S. networks begun acquiring more Canadian dramas — which, thanks to modest cultural differences, can pretty much hide their origins in plain sight — but there are far more English-language dramas from places like the U.K. and Australia that feature overt accents and are finding a home in the U.S.
So is “Downton Abbey” — a British period piece that has become an obsession for millions — an anomaly, or a harbinger of things to come?
For U.S. viewers, PBS and the stately confines of “Masterpiece” were once pretty much the only place to go to hear such voices. Today, a handful of networks regularly air imports. Beyond BBC America, the roster includes Starz/Encore, DirecTV’s Audience Network and HBO, which brings another Ricky Gervais series, “Life’s Too Short,” Stateside on Feb. 19 (see review, page 14), and has showcased Chris Lilley’s work from Australia. Even Netflix’s plans to get into production are being inaugurated with “Lilyhammer,” a series produced in Norway starring Steven Van Zandt.
Many of these shows reflect an edginess and singularity of vision well suited to premium cable. Audience Network’s just-introduced “The Slap,” for example, is an ambitious Australian drama about an adult back-handing a child, and it’s repercussions on everyone present when the incident occurred. It’s telling how universal and relatable the situations are, once viewers become accustomed to certain cultural idioms (like the pharmacy being referred to as the “chemist”).
Admittedly, there’s an element of pragmatism in these acquisitions, which fill hours on niche channels eager to carve out exclusive footprints — without risking the expense associated with commissioning a slew of original dramas. Yet in the process, they’ve helped demonstrate the abundance of good work being produced around the globe, and how the U.S. can hardly claim a monopoly in that regard.
For now, PBS can rest easy knowing a third season of the show will return in January. Until then, though, there’s no shortage of first-rate international drama invading the U.S. All that’s required is an understanding of where to look — and amid a cacophony of voices, how to listen.