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DOWNTON ABBEY, the end of a TV phenomenon…

Posted on March 7th, 2016
Posted on March 7th, 2016

by Coop Cooper

Although the final episode aired during Christmas in the UK, American audiences got their last glimpse of “Downton Abbey” during the PBS Masterpiece Theatre finale this past Sunday. The show, which chronicled the trials and tribulations of the Lord of Grantham and his royal English family for six seasons could have been easily dismissed as a stuffy, British soap opera with little appeal to American or international audiences. Instead, the series became PBS’s biggest programming hit of all time and captured the imagination of viewers from countries like Argentina and Japan.

The primary cast consists of the Lord of Grantham aka Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and his American wife, Countess Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and his daughters: the headstrong Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), the long-suffering Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and the rebellious Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Robert’s mother, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) tries desperately to keep the old ways alive while her cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton) always rallies for change. The servant’s world is governed by the stern butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the kind head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and their ever-changing and drama-prone staff. The rest of the vast and talented cast has inspired many fans to argue over which are their favorites.

How did a show with such a culturally-specific premise end up earning such wide appeal? A few reasons: 1. The attention to detail was meticulous and grand. Alastair Bruce, an expert on the history and protocol of the era, made sure both servant and royal actors obeyed the strict customs and rules of the time period. Everything from the table settings to how each character in their class were addressed was given the utmost attention. 2. The castle and the characters’ wardrobes were almost entities unto themselves. The location was authentic and it lent itself to recreate the time period perfectly while the fashion of the times helped bring the characters to life. 3. It was well-written and well acted, especially for a soap opera. The cast was elevated by veteran actors such as Maggie Smith and the rest developed flawlessly and found their own voices as the series went on. The show also crafted organic ups and downs/cliffhangers to keep viewers waiting to tune-in next week.

One of the most fascinating hourlong ‘specials’ done about the show was “Manners of Downton Abbey” which featured Alastair Bruce explaining the customs and etiquette of the royals during this time period. In it, he goes over some of the finer details of the etiquette such as manners during meals, how to verbally address a royal, servant hierarchy and much more. These are concepts somewhat alien to modern Americans but one must realize there were similar rules and customs that carried over into the America of old, especially in the Southern States, which are now considered archaic.

While the show over the course of its run had many characters going through severe tragedies and pitfalls, the finale aimed to wrap everything up with a more cheerful tone. At least one of the characters has a bittersweet ending while the rest enjoy a storybook end to their fairytale.

Although this is the end to “Down Abbey” in its current form, I have doubts its creators will put it to bed forever. I suspect there could eventually be a spinoff, one that could exist with or without some of the same characters/actors. One choice could be to continue the story from where it left off, moving into the World War II era, but that would be extremely difficult to reassemble the entire cast and get them to renew their contracts. A better idea might be to move the setting into the 1960’s where the children (like Merigold, Sibby, George, etc…) have all grown and are adjusting to further changes as their ancestral home adjusts to modernization in the royal culture. Another idea could be to choose another Duke or Earl’s family during the WWII setting and have characters from the original series make appearances… but that just wouldn’t be “Downton Abbey”. Even a spinoff with Lady Edith would be most welcome, but I bet they will take some time to work it out and surprise us a few years down the road with a new incarnation.

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