Brew a proper cup of English tea and practice ringing the bell to summon the servants. Then have the footman turn on the telly so that you can watch “Downton Abbey," which begins its fourth season this Sunday (“Masterpiece” on PBS at 9 p.m.).
The hit British drama has turned into the most popular show ever to air on public television. Last year, the final episode was watched by more than 8 million viewers, making it the highest-rated PBS show of all time.
That, of course, was the episode in which (spoiler alert #1) Matthew Crawley, the beloved, baby blue-eyed husband of Lady Mary Crawley (they were distant cousins before marrying), got himself killed in a car crash right after wifey delivered their first heir. (Actor Dan Stevens, who played Matthew, wanted off the series, hence his character’s untimely demise.) The new season will open six months later, with Lady Mary still in deep mourning as other family members worry over how to pay the death taxes and just who will now look after the interests of the vast Downton Abbey estate.
Essentially, “Downton” is a soap opera and a recycling of “Upstairs, Downstairs,” one of the first shows to put PBS on the map back in 1974. That popular series, about the aristocratic Bellamy family and the below stairs servants who served them at 165 Eaton Place, ran for several seasons.
“Downton Abbey” is about the aristocratic Crawley clan and the below-stairs staff who cater to the titled family members’ every whim. It has gained fans with each season as viewers turn in to witness the triumphs and tragedies affecting Lord and Lady Crawley and their three adult daughters (Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil, who — spoiler alert #2 — died in childbirth last season) and catch the latest withering quips uttered by the Dowager Countess (inimitably played by the redoubtable Maggie Smith).
So why, in a land where we pride ourselves on the lack of a class system and everyone being born equal, does this sort of fancy dress fare continue to appeal? For the same reasons that Americans tune in by the tens of millions to live broadcasts of the weddings and birth announcements of British royals. We may have fought a war more than 200 years ago to free ourselves from the yoke of English oppression, but we still can’t help being impressed by titled toffs with accents and seigneurial assumptions.
For those of us who have never had servants nor ever been servants ourselves — and that would be most of us Yanks — “Downton Abbey” allows us a glimpse into a rarified world of privilege, along with the complementary world of servitude. When a standard dinner setting includes four different glasses at every place, both master and servant had damn well better know why each and every glass is there and how and when it is to be used. On “Downton,” they do.
The show’s appeal is also based on the fact that the Crawleys are dodo birds and don’t always know it. Their way of life is fast coming to an end and only a few of them are going to adapt successfully to the new age that is arriving. Ditto for the servants who toil below-stairs, only some of who grasp that there are new and better opportunities waiting to be latched onto beyond the gates of Downton Abbey. Poor Carson, the loyal butler, can think of no higher calling than a life of service.
Finally, there’s the snob appeal. It may be television, but if everyone on “Downton Abbey” is speaking with a British accent and some of the characters even have titles, then it must be classy. And let’s face it, that is not a claim that anyone will ever even be tempted to make on behalf of “Duck Dynasty.”