It's been 100 years since the Titanic sank but less than a year since a TV event that kicked off with that very disaster, Downton Abbey, took the Emmy Awards by storm last September. Relatively unheralded and on unsexy PBS, Downton Abbey managed to launch its own British invasion in claiming six trophies (including top movie/miniseries as well as the supporting work of Dame Maggie Smith.) The show about the lives of English aristocrats and servants in the early part of the 20th century seemingly became a pop culture phenomenon the instant it arrived on our shores, demonstrating again that the Brits do period drama better than anyone else.
But in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? world of the primetime Emmys, Downton (a co-production of NBCUniversal's Carnival Films in the UK and PBS affiliate WGBH/Boston) is about to find out how the other half really lives. Because it's no longer a miniseries but a plain old drama series in its second season, it won't be competing for Emmys this time with longform projects like HBO's Mildred Pierce, Too Big to Fail and Cinema Verité as it did in 2011, but instead against American TV's real aristocracy, which will include some combination of AMC's Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Killing, Showtime's Homeland and HBO's Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. That's assuming, of course, that Downton earns second invitation to the party as it's expected to.
"We're going to be in a whole other orbit," acknowledges Rebecca Eaton, executive producer for PBS' Masterpiece and Downton Abbey. "We won against some very stiff competition last year from HBO, for which we all remain enormously proud. But in American TV, the drama series track clearly is the faster track. It'll be interesting to go toe-to-toe with those very different shows and see how we do."
Indeed, it's highly unusual — but not quite unprecedented — that a series like Downton would start out as just another miniseries import, only to shift to Emmy's® version of the heavyweight division for its second go-around. It happened as recently as 2007-08 with USA Network's The Starter Wife. What it means is that Downton was never really a miniseries but clearly benefitted from being able to call itself one for a year.
Perhaps even more atypical is that a public broadcasting entry is being mentioned in the same breath for awards attention as the biggest kids on cable. Then again, there have been few sensations to match Downton Abbey, which started out with strong ratings in its first season, only to shift into overdrive for Season 2. It launched year two in January with 4.2 million viewers, up 18% from its Season 1 average. That number swelled to an audience of 5.4 million for its February finale, PBS's largest tune-in since the premiere of the Ken Burns' doc National Parks in September '09. Anytime you're in Burns territory, you're breathing rarefied air.
The numbers didn't much surprise Downton exec producer Gareth Neame, who co-created the series with writer/exec producer Julian Fellowes. "It's been a massive phenomenon in England from the start and is the No. 1 non-homegrown series in every country where it plays," Neame stresses. "We thought it would be liked by the anglophile community that tends to embrace these kinds of shows in America. But what's really extraordinary is the way Downton has entered the vernacular outside of television and is now satirized and talked about in the daily dialogue."
Why has this thing so connected with the U.S. audience in particular? Neame believes that, while this is an expressly British genre, Downton Abbey is "actually rendered in quite a contemporary way. American viewers watch it and think, well, the scenery is different and the actors sound different and the costumes are different, but the storytelling tone is really quite soapy and modern."
Julian FellowesThat's not by accident. Fellowes set out from the start to give the project the distinctly American style of layering in multiple storylines vying for the audience's attention. "I think it fits the more modern expectation of television better than the traditional rather slower-moving period drama of years ago, featuring a single narrative," Fellowes says. "The period we're depicting also is a big part of the appeal. There's just something about that pre-Internet world, the scale of which I just think feels more understandable. A period that's more settled and ordered and controlled certainly carries a more nostalgic appeal."
Not that Fellowes necessarily had any clue that he was crafting a classic when he started putting pen to paper for Downton in 2009. "This sort of phenomenon happens only once in a career, and only if you're very lucky," he figures. "With everything you work on, you just try to do your best to get it right. The timing has to be right too, and that's something you can never really control."
But the trail being blazed by Downton can't be minimized in terms of how it has redefined the way North American audiences view overseas entertainment. Michael Edelstein, president of international television production for NBCU — which acquired Carnival Films in 2008 — believes, "This series has broken down so many barriers and stigmas. We now know that a British drama can become a global hit and draw new people to our business because they see the potential. It's already helping to attract great creative talent our way."
Edelstein adds that Fellowes' unique gift is in leaving the audience wanting more. "It's aspirational," he says. "Every character, rich or poor, is trying to have the best life possible." Neame agrees that the series is "perhaps forging a reappraisal of how history is done. I think suddenly audiences are starting to go, 'Wow, history is fun.' "
Certainly, American TV has made great strides in crafting historical dramas over the past several years, from HBO miniseries like Band of Brothers, The Pacific and especially John Adams along with, of course, AMC's Mad Men. We have traditionally left the costume drama to the Brits in part because the UK remains addicted to its glorious past, while conversely the more optimistic America is traditionally more obsessed with the present and future, a notion Fellowes and Neame endorse.
But Downton Abbey has become so rapidly ingrained in American culture that few now make the grievous error of calling it 'Downtown' Abbey. And while Brits like Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville stir this pot, some American performers have seeped into the mix as well with Elizabeth McGovern (as Cora Crawley) and, coming in Season 3, none other than Shirley MacLaine joining the cast as Cora's mother Martha Levinson. This is indeed a British-American coproduction to its very core.
So popular has Downton grown that Neame has had to begin scotching rumors, including one that circulated in April that had Smith poised to depart the show after the third season (presuming there will be at least a fourth). "We do not discuss future storylines," Neame said in a statement, "however there is no truth in the story that Maggie is leaving the show."
There may, however, be truth in the conjecture that a Downton Abbey theatrical film could soon be in the works, Neame allows. "There is talk of all sorts of things surrounding this program," he says. "But my focus, as well as that of Julian and everyone involved, is to continue to work toward sustaining this as a TV show that's remembered for years to come."
— Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline's TV coverage