“Downton Abbey” merits its best drama nom this year. Despite two previous nominations, the PBS period piece that broke the “Upstairs, Downstairs” mold has never won the Emmy in that competitive category. Season after season it compels: a combination of soap opera, fast-paced storytelling and cinematic production values, plus stellar ensemble acting.
The ratings for the Carnival Films/Masterpiece co-production — the highest rated drama in PBS history — underscore its popularity. Even competing against the closing night of the Olympics, the season 4 finale logged an average 8.5 million views, up nearly 4% from the final episode of season 3.
And, while executive producer Gareth Neame has in the past said the show he constructed with Julian Fellowes was like a warm bath, anyone who has seen the show since its inception would beg to differ. Recalling the horrifying bathroom episode in season 1, it’s a warm bath where there is a bar of soap lying suspiciously just outside the tub awaiting the slip of a major female character pregnant with a potential heir.
“We’ve always had a sense of optimism among a group of beloved characters, and yet there were catastrophes and twists and turns,” Neame says. “This started from the very first episode when a young man came in to seduce Lady Mary and it turns out that he’s gay. That’s not something the people expected from this genre.”
Unlike its predecessor, “Upstairs, Downstairs,” where each episode had a single storyline, “Downton Abbey” has relied on multiple storylines, some comic, some tragic — and some even controversial. For example, the season 3 cliffhanger raised the kind of outcry atypical for PBS. The show’s avid watchers reeled when Dan Stevens’ romantic Matthew Crawley abruptly made his exit from the show in a car accident just as his character found true happiness as a husband and father.
Fans around the world may have shaken their fists at the screen in dismay, yet they returned the following season to witness the sexual assault of the long-suffering ladies maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) while her valet husband, John (Brendan Coyle), was upstairs listening to a concert. Although this subplot may have been just one too many setbacks for the star-crossed working couple, it certainly was not the vivid fatal poisoning of King Joffrey in “Game of Thrones.”
Even its fans had doubts this year.
Indiewire’s film and TV critic Caryn James told Variety: “I love ‘Downton Abbey’, but I think last season was its weakest. It struggled to find its way after Matthew’s death; the Anna rape plot seemed too brutal for a show whose appeal is that it lets us escape into a fantasy of another world. But that appeal is still there, so I’m optimistic about the next season.”
“From very early we said the show will go off in a right angle that you couldn’t predict,” Neame says. “Memorable moments included the death of Matthew and the rape perpetrated on Anna Bates. It’s a comedy of manners, social drama, witty repartee and suddenly some horrendous scene happens and people are shocked by it. Keeping all those things in orbit is part of the show’s DNA and central to its popularity.”
The object from the start was to achieve the highest element of production with the most accessible way of telling stories. “What we wanted to do is to take an expressive familiar genre,” Neame says. “The setting is recognizable. It is an anchor. But the storytelling is as multi-layered and as fast-paced as any show.
“Yes, there’s also a soapy dimension, an ensemble drama living in a single community — which we render with cinematic production values and a high quality of writing and acting, which wasn’t associated with soap opera.”
At the peak of that acting pyramid is Maggie Smith, 79. As Violet Crawley, the dowager countess of Grantham, Smith’s is among the best, most layered performances by an actress on television.
“The wonderful thing about Maggie Smith, is that she has perfect comic timing and delivery,” Neame says. “She can move from high emotion and high drama to laugh-out-loud comedy within one line.”
Where else on television could Smith play a part so wise, sharp-tongued, flawed, and ever-surprising — and so far beyond menopause?
“Downton Abbey” is estrogen-dense, with pregnancies, births and miscarriages pivotal to the plot. And that has translated into an expanding female viewership. According to PBS, the fourth season experienced its highest growth among younger women and teens. Compared to the previous season, the ratings increased 38% among women 35-49, 30% among women 18-34 and 17% among teens.
And the production value is gorgeous. The lavish design has launched a cottage (or is that a manor?) industry in upscale Edwardian home furnishings. The impeccable costumes are a glorious alternative to the present when even executives wear flip flops and cargo shorts. A full orchestra assembles for the soundtrack, for which John Lunn won a Primetime Emmy for music composition in a series last year.
For all its popularity, “Downton” will never be mistaken for the Real Housewives of Yorkshire, either. There is real meat with the pudding. Set in an era of seismic social change in Europe, much of the drama in Fellowes’ elegantly scripted series emerges from the characters coping with challenges from within and without: class tensions, women’s emancipation and prejudice.
“From the original concept, we wanted to have this very accessible drama, this element of soap opera, a fast-paced show that felt contemporary with the aesthetic of British quality,” Neame says. “And, while the core audience is female, I’ve often remarked that the success of the show in the U.S. is down to the fact that the women of America have control of the remote controls. Their husbands, fathers, and sons find themselves on the couch and they get very quickly reeled in. It is definitely female skewing but you can’t have a hit of this scale without appealing to both sexes. It’s the women in the family that discover the show, but the men got hooked as well.”