Monday, June 04, 2012

Why is Downton Abbey So Addicting?

My wife and I just recently watched season 1 of the critically acclaimed BBC series Downton Abbey.

In fact, it seems anyone we know who's watched this first season of the show seems to just love it, and they seem to tear through the first seven episodes in a wink.

On the surface, I find this surprising. In the beginning of the show it reminded me quickly of Gosford Park (logical, due to writer Julian Fellows role with each) and The Remains of the Day. I enjoy both of these films, although I honestly find both of the films at times to be somewhat slow at times.

Yet, that is not the experience viewers seem to have with Downton Abbey. Which has led me to wonder, what it is about this show that makes this off-the-beaten path period drama so enticing.

Here are some possible reasons:

  • We're attracted to noble and honorable male characters. Generally most of the male characters here are very honorable and clearly are trying to make "the right" decision. This seems to hold true for all the male leads (Earl Robert Crawley, Matthew Crawley, John Bates and Mr. Carson), with the exception of the antagonist Thomas Barrow. The upstairs and downstairs men are principled gentleman, against Thomas excluded.
  • We might like the honorable male, but the dishonorable female even more enjoyable. When it comes to the "upstairs ladies" there is a plenty of dis-honorableness, gossip, and manipulation to go around. Lady Mary and Lady Edith are simply awful to one another, and Countess Cora Crawley is certainly not a shining example of motherhood, although her character bares it's own complexity. And then, there is the dowager countess (Maggie Smith). The "downstairs" females are not nearly as bad, although downstairs there is the worst of the worst in Sarah O'Brien.
  • We like to see poor people happier than rich people. There is something to be said about the lovely fair scenes when everyone has a lovely time, while the rich people continue to deal with their perpetual problems of no importance.
  • We like romantic tension. I always assume it's because romance and love can be awkward, we tend to enjoy seeing other people's relational discomfort more than we like to see two people happily in love. The build up is the formula for addicting TV, and while this TV show doesn't rely on it, it certainly does a great job peppering plenty of on-again-off-again romance in both it's upstairs and downstairs characters.
  • We like (for whatever reason) period-piece comments that are absolutely ridiculous and irrelevant. In the same way we gasp when the pregnant mother smokes in a TV show like Mad Men, we drop our jaw almost every time the Dowager Countess speaks with lines like: "Of course it would happen to a foreigner. No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else's house."
  • We like good stories. We don't just want characters, we want stories, and Downton Abbey doesn't take episodes developing characters and plots, but jumps right in with a tragedy (the sinking of the Titanic) and let's us the viewers spy on this family when we figure out there stories and watch how this event is just a domino that leads from one thing to the next in a fantastic, although melodramatic at times, story.

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