Our special relationship with 'Downton Abbey'

America has a remarkably close relationship with its previous owner. It seems we no sooner threw off the yoke of George III than we started collecting mugs decorated with the images of royal wedding partners.

England and the United States have been staunch allies for more than a century, and what diplomats call "a special relationship" has matured with time and wars.


And as the breadth and might of British Empire diminished and we emerged as a world power, we still looked to the English with the respect of a student who has surpassed his tutor but cannot bring himself to acknowledge the new order.

American television audiences for coronations, investitures and royal weddings and funerals are enormous — especially considering we have to get up in the middle of the night to watch. And our appetite for royal gossip rivals that for Hollywood gossip, whether it is Prince Harry naked or Kate Middleton pregnant. And we think of Queen Elizabeth as a dear aunt.


So when the English package what we love best about them — the castles, the gardens, the manners, the rituals, the clothing and the attitude — and ship it across the pond for PBS to broadcast here, we are like kittens to the cream.

"Downton Abbey" is a sumptuous costume drama set in England around the time of World War I. It's the story of an old English estate, the family and its servants in a time of sweeping social change. The youngest daughter marries the Irish chauffeur, for heaven's sake.

It returned for a third season Sunday night, and 8 million Americans watched — almost twice as many as tuned in for the first episode of Season 2 and four times as large an audience as for any other PBS prime time programming. In network terms, it drew an audience the average size of that for "The Good Wife."

Even viewers who have already watched Season 3 (it began in Britain in September, and all the episodes are available on the Internet) pronounced themselves eager for the reboot in this country. Those who did not jump the gun warned their friends not to spoil any plot surprises.

"Downton Abbey" is officially an international phenomenon. It is available in 200 nations and regions and dozens of languages. It will appear in China — dubbed in Mandarin — this year. Jim Carter, who plays the chief butler Mr. Carson, told reporters he was biking in Cambodia when a group of Asian tourists swarmed him and called him by his character's name.

Writer and creator Julian Fellowes, the child of a diplomat whose mother let him take over the kitchen occasionally and who grew up to marry an aristocrat, is clearly the right man for this job. But even he is surprised at the show's raging success and the way his characters have insinuated themselves into the lives of the fans. He tells the story a woman who came up to him and exclaimed that she is praying for them.

The show's fan base ranges from Seth Meyers, Joan Rivers and Reba McEntire to Will and Kate, which must be unnerving for the cast. First Lady Michelle Obama ordered advance copies of Season 3, and (speaking of royalty) drag queen RuPaul theorized about our fascination with the show, saying in an interview: "What's interesting about the show is that as our culture, protocol and etiquette deteriorates, we get to watch this show where it is in full swing ... where people actually honor their place in society and thrive in their place."

"Downton Abbey" has found its way into everything from food — Mrs. Patmore's pudding recipe is out there now — to travel. The demand for British castles and estates, to rent or purchase, has reportedly never been greater.


And the fashions? Don't get me started. Suddenly, all I want to do is dress for dinner.

Actress Shirley MacLaine joined the cast this year as the American mother-in-law of Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, who is trying to keep the estate solvent and his daughters in tow. We eagerly awaited her vinegary exchanges with Maggie Smith, who plays the formidable Dowager Countess, and the first episode did not disappoint.

We have fallen for family dramas before. "The Sopranos" — a very different kind of family costume drama — captured our imagination and propelled HBO into the ratings and revenue stratosphere for cable. (At PBS, pledges are up and so are "sponsorships.")

It might be that we just love to look in other people's windows from the darkened sidewalk where we cannot be seen, and it doesn't matter if they are pulling on elbow-length gloves or shooting helpless snitches in the woods.

But I wager that "Downton Abbey's" Englishness is what we really like about it. After all, the plot can be a bit soapy and contrived. Deathbed weddings and convenient victims of the Spanish flu were a bit much. The stories of the upper crust fascinate us because, deep down, I think Americans would like to have royalty — or be royalty. And the struggles of the servants fire up our sense of outrage at social injustice. The crisp dialogue pace and the multiple story lines are just what's needed to harness the attenuated American attention span.

So, as the dark months of winter descend on us, we'll have a fire in the grate and a decanter of sherry in the library at Downton Abbey to warm us. Cheers!


Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at and @SusanReimer on