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‘Downton Abbey’ Landed at Right Time to Make a Big Splash

Timing can be everything. And in the case of “Downton Abbey,” which ends its storied six-year run on PBS this weekend, the mix of factors that helped a British costume drama become an enormous stateside hit aligned, in hindsight, as perfectly as the ingredients in a vodka martini, shaken but not stirred.

Series creator Julian Fellowes and his sprawling cast deserve enormous credit for making this upstairs-downstairs tale so pleasing. Yet as that reference implies, this was hardly the first splendid “Masterpiece” production to which Americans were treated via public television, which raises the question why “Downton” attracted ratings as gaudy as the Crawleys’ massive estate – at times topping 10 million viewers a week, a plateau few commercial dramas reach these days – where others haven’t.

For starters, “Downton” premiered in the U.S. in January 2011, a few months after “The Walking Dead” – a program with which it shares more than a few subtle similarities – began its Sherman’s March through basic-cable ratings records. That was a moment when serialized storytelling had begun to proliferate, and viewers were becoming more adept at finding shows on channels they might not otherwise be watching, at least in those kinds of numbers. In the process, “Dead” and “Downton” have blurred distinctions that separated expectations for the major broadcast networks from other channels.

“Downton” also offered not just the glorious trappings of a soap opera, but relatively short seasons that allowed viewers to catch up – which technology has made far easier to do – based on word of mouth. Small wonder the audience (for that and “Walking Dead,” notably) built from season to season, with people binging, getting hooked and then dutifully showing up when the series returned.

As insular as the U.S. has traditionally been in terms of watching international fare – generally confined to art houses in a theatrical setting (think Merchant Ivory films, a spiritual cousin to “Downton”) – television has also become more global.

Accents didn’t necessarily represent a commercial kiss of death, as evidenced a host of critically lauded British dramas on BBC America, SundanceTV and Starz, to name a few. And while the audience usually remains small, it’s noteworthy that subtitled series are actually finding U.S. platforms (see “The Returned” and “Deutschland 83”), reflecting an appetite for interesting stories, regardless of the source.

Obviously, “Downton Abbey” had no shortage of appealing elements, from launching the story with the sinking of the Titanic to the star-crossed romance between Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), which had enough twists and hurdles to do Jane Austen proud. In hindsight, the show’s greatest achievement might have been surviving its awkward means of writing out Stevens, who wanted to move on, at the end of the third season, which felt particularly deflating given the woes and near misses the pair had weathered.

Still, there has been no shortage of great dramas on “Masterpiece” throughout the years. And without the cocktail of factors that emerged, it’s hard to see why “Downton” would have suddenly tripled and quadrupled tune-in for earlier jewels in that crown. (PBS’ marketing does deserve some credit, although the brunt of the push followed the show’s initial success – essentially catching a wave and riding it.)

Beyond pledge drives, PBS even capitalized on “Downton Abbey’s” popularity to introduce other series, which has mostly underscored how difficult it is to catch lightning in a bottle twice. The one major tip-off that this series comes from the somewhat rarefied world of public television, frankly, is that if it belonged to anyone else, plans (or at least pleas) for a subtitled spinoff – think “The Early Years” or “The Next Generation” – would have begun circling Heathrow almost as soon as Fellowes delivered word that “Downton” would be sailing into the sunset.

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