How Downton Abbey paved the way for period drama

    DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA, (also known as DOWNTON ABBEY 2), Left: Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, 2022. ph: Ben Blackall / Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection

    Downton Abbey: A New Era arrives more than a decade after Downton Abbey first caught the attention of audiences around the world. It has grown from “just another British drama” to an international cultural phenomenon that has sparked six TV seasons and two films (and the number is growing). The success of “Downton” places it among the most popular dramas in television history, but its legacy is not without its complexities.

    When it premiered in 2010, “Downton” breathed new life into TV drama. At the time, true or not, television dramas were largely conceived of the BBC and/or adaptations of classic literature. This genre was known to be monotonous and stifling, with rare exceptions. Downton became a phenomenon for her glamor and soapy intrigue, not to mention her willingness to take on the “scandal” streak and her unabashedly romantic heart.

    More than anything else, the secret of “Downton” and its long-term success can be found in its characters. From the very first episode, the show manages two things very well: skillfully juggling a surprisingly sprawling cast and crafting characters that are both typical and unique. The reason we kept coming back season after season was just to see what happened to these characters who found a place in our hearts. It’s what makes us push through plots that can sometimes get silly or repetitive (did we? Is that true Need Anna and/or Bates charged with a crime practically every season?). For many dramas, there is an inherent difficulty in connecting with audiences. The challenge is to make those people who have lives completely different from ours feel connected. Downton cracked the code through an alchemical mixture of writing and casting, and while plenty of other shows have tried to replicate it, the results have rarely made the same sense.

    With that being said, it’s also worth bearing in mind that “Downton” is part of the style of period drama that doesn’t necessarily represent the future of the genre. “Downton” and its ilk are the epitome of traditional period drama: glamorous, romantic and melodramatic stories about the lives of the rich and subtitled. Occasionally, the people who work for them are also given some screen time, but they always stay firmly in their ‘place’. As a result, popular culture has a very narrow perspective on history, as their stories are told from those eras, and how the different groups are portrayed.

    A show like “Downton” can be limited in its imagination because its intense appeal (witness the chic, the rich, and their messy lives!) is based on accepting segregation (and race, gender, and gender) at its core. Downton is deeply committed to the idea that aristocracy is good and it is sad to see that system struggle after World War I. Alternative ideas about class, politics, and economics are distorted, mocked, or written down. Characters who don’t endorse current order and standards are written as abrasive villains (Miss Bunting), brushed aside as silly (Daisy), or pushed to more “acceptable” viewpoints except when the story requires additional drama (Tom). Yes, many of the dramas are set in periods of intense class, ethnic, and gender bias, but there are still plenty of stories (including hilarious and soapy ones) worth telling.

    Today, period drama is (slowly) moving to center other types of stories. “The Gilded Age” – created by the same team behind “Downton” – encompasses the world of upper-class black families in late 19th century New York City. “Sanditon” — an ITV/PBS production, like “Downton” — features a bi-racial Caribbean heiress. Shows like “Anne Boleyn” and “Bridgerton” have imagined color-conscious alternate universes of grandiose, drama-filled historical pieces with all the metaphors we know and love. And these are just the attractive and famous offers; There is a lot. We have Bridgeton-style displays that present alternate histories along with tales dedicated to diving into the true histories of a wide range of societies and historical figures.

    There will always be shows about wealthy people with titles who are well-dressed and spark drama. Downton is the crown jewel of this traditional depiction of period drama, and its success has paved the way for more and more historical tales to find an audience. It truly is an example of how this place can be at its best: full of complex characters, heart-wrenching stories, and incredible attention to historical detail. However, “Downton” is only one part of the story when it comes to period plays, and we can’t wait to see the genre continue to thrive and grow.