First things first. If you haven't yet watched last Sunday's episode of the wildly popular "Downton Abbey", then you need to know that this post is a bit of a spoiler.
And believe me, I have no interest in spoiling what for many Americans is their favorite television show.
Okay, that's a bit of a stretch. The 7.9 million viewers who watched the January premiere of Season 3 did indeed break records for PBS, which outperformed all the major US networks except CBS. Three months earlier though, 9 million tuned in for the UK premiere - a number that was actually down from the previous year's debut.
Compared to the tidal wave of folks (100 million plus) who will watch "Super Bowl XLVII", the PBS audiences are mere rivelets. Still, "Downton Abbey" has all the hallmarks of what, at least these days, constitutes a mass cultural event.
Amazon just signed a deal to lock in digital distribution of the show. There are already endless "Downton" spoofs out there. Still, you know a show's really hit the cultural sweet spot when Sesame Street weighs in, with its "Upside Downton Abbey" parody. Even my local and fiercely independent bookstore has been won over, and devoted an entire shelf to books about the food, fashion and "real" life antecedents of Crawley-world.
So, what is it about "Downton Abbey" - why is it so damn popular?
For one thing, it goes down easy: This is a show that's far more feel-good than good-for-you. Despite its "Masterpiece Theatre" pedigree and period drama pretensions, Downton's stock characters and wild story developments are the stuff of pure melodrama. Two sisters quarreling over the deathbed of a third? Hello "Downton", "Dynasty" and "Dallas" are calling and want their plots back!
Meanwhile the show tackles its history with the same list-making gusto that sites like BuzzFeed use to parse contemporary culture. "Downton" doesn't so much dramatize the early twentieth century as present its "10 greatest moments": Titanic sinks! Women's suffrage! Socialism! World War One! Influenza!
And the sniping over social mores around the dinner table/in the drawing room? How is that any different from the dynamics that animate "Keeping up with the Kardashians" or one of "The Real Housewives" or "The Wives of" shows? Turns out whether you live among aristocrats, celebrities or the spouses of plastic surgeons, everyone just wants to know one thing: "Who invited her?!"
So, "Downton" is a soap opera. Tastefully lit, generally well-done, but still: A soap opera. Doesn't mean the show is bad, or merely a guilty pleasure. On the contrary: it has great cultural savvy (with its "Downton Abbey collection" and its book clubs and its Twitter "events"). Still, I don't think the success of "Downton" is due solely to PBS's efforts to come up with a hit formula or tap into the shifting sensibilities of its audiences. Rather, I think they happened upon a set of subjects that have proven to be deeply appealing because they're so familiar. Those post-Edwardian aristocrats, with their fussy but beautiful fashions, their strict ideas about proper behavior, their master and servant edicts? Though we're separated by a good deal of time and tide, we still have plenty in common.
Take the class preoccupations that permeate the world of "Downton Abbey." Americans like to think we've created a society that's allowed us to escape the confines of class. And yet if popular culture is any indication, we're absolutely obsessed with figuring out our respective social standings, how the other half - upper or lower - lives. So we tune into "Wife Swap," or "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" or even "The Wire."
Like "Downton," those shows depict class consciousness at its most complicated, by presenting characters who, through a variety of circumstances, elude or reject or remain stifled by their station in life. And, as more Americans find themselves relegated to living "downstairs," these shows, "Downton" included, offer a compelling way to come to terms with our anxiety - or guilt - over the consequences of our bifurcated economy. No less a cultural expert than Ru Paul said of "Downton:" "Everybody can't live upstairs, I'm sorry. We're sold the idea that we're all created equal, but actually we're not."
That we sort a lot of this stuff out in our popular amusements also inextricably links us to the world and the people of what will likely be forever more the "Downton" era. They too were buffeted and exhilarated by a rapidly shifting world, one transformed by new forms of communication, new powers of mobility, new technologies. And just like us, new cultural forms (sports and cinema for them, reality tv and social media for us) became ways to both express and understand the change going on around them.
That connection is made thrillingly clear thanks to James Kenyon and Sagar Mitchell, who in 1897, founded a film company.
These two enterprising gents would travel around England, making films of everyday people going about their ordinary business: Leaving the factory after a day's work, or watching a soccer match, or just hanging out with the family on the weekend. They'd shoot during the day and then exhibit the footage that very same night, in music halls or at fairgrounds. Calling them "local films for local people," they'd lure in spectators (and drum up business sponsors) by billing the screenings as a chance to "see yourselves as others see you." And come they did, apparently in droves.
The films were rediscovered, restored and recirculated over the past 15-odd years. And though they could be considered mere novelties or amusements of their day, watching them over a century after they were made is almost a shocking experience.
These people don't look antiquated or stiff or out of time. They look like us. And they look at us: Boldly, directly, flirting with the camera like the best of our reality celebrities. They're our truest ancestors, the first "modern" people, at least in a cultural sense.
Kenyon and Mitchell said of their lightening quick turnaround skills "we take them and make them." But they tapped into something deeper about the pleasures and potential of early modern culture's capacity for immediacy and interactivity. Here was a way to get to know, or just "get" one another, our daily preoccupations, our reactions to the changing times. That could be a night's entertainment, or just as equally vital information, in a era when so many ways of life were being tossed aside, or desperately held onto.
Isn't that the same impulse that drives our desire to take a picture and then immediately post it to Instagram? Or to share tidbits about our commute or work-a-day world preoccupations on Facebook? Or to post our real-time reactions to "Downton" or the Oscars or the presidential debates on Twitter? I mean, why turn on the TV when you can just as easily "watch" the show by tuning into your stream?
Maybe, as a friend of mine's 5 year-old-said when introduced to Facebook, social media is just a place where we show off: Our modern day amusement hall. But maybe in our desire to share things – from the soap operas we watch to the deaths we experience – we're trying to create a meaningful experience. We don't want to just witness the spectacles around us. We want to be active participants in them.