THE BLOG

It Takes an Abbey

03/20/2014 04:21 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2014

If you were not watching the Super Bowl on February 2, chances are that you might have been were watching the BBC's hit series Downton Abbey. For the second year running, it ranked second in viewership on that night. The show has sparked such loyalty that Downton parties, in early 20th century dress, and even Downton tours of the English manor home, where some of the scenes are shot, are both routine and overbooked.

Writers and the blogosphere offer any number of reasons for the show's popularity. Some attribute it to our fascination with "how the upper crust" -- the turn of the last century's 1 percent -- lived. Some see an updated version of the previous hit, Upstairs, Downstairs, delivering on the different lives and interactions between the serving and served classes. Some see 21st century feminism projected into the early 1900s, since Downton's women are nothing if not strong, in control, and emerging into their own in a world made anew by war. And, of course, some just see Downton as a really good "soap," though perhaps with one too many deaths of key characters.

Downton is some of all of these. From another vantage point, it is also an exercise on how we deal with change. The first quarter of the last century saw not only our first worldwide, mechanized war but a dramatic period of industrialization, the introduction of the automobile, widespread electrification and the innovation in consumer products that resulted, the ability to communicate faster through the spread of the telephone, and the long-delayed widening of the suffrage for women. It's no surprise, then, to see Downton's Mrs. Patmore distraught at the introduction of an electric mixer to the kitchen or Lord Grantham's bewilderment at the need to consider modern farming methods since the old ones worked so well for his ancestors. Indeed, the genteel society of Downton Abbey is beset with disruptive change -- a daughter who falls in love with a married man, a servant who aspires to escape to work at the Ritz, financial threats to the abbey's existence, and even a "boorish" American who announces that she and others "across the pond" will be the captains of the future.

In short, Downton is not unlike our own time, and that may also be a secret to its popularity. But if dramatic change was all it had to offer, the series would be depressing, if not also scary. What the characters give us is hope that we can come through both morally and materially intact.

While the series presents us with rigid (though weakening) class distinctions common to English society at that time, it also offers a community of caring that crosses those lines. The daily contact that characterizes the lives of those who have no choice but to live in close quarters is formal when roles demand but supportive when someone is suffering. When Thomas, the scheming under-butler, sobs at the death of Lady Sybil, there is nothing self-serving in this usually morally compromised man. When Isobel Crawley offers a job to a serving girl compromised by a lying rake, her thoughts are of a young woman and a child, not about the "shame" she may be bringing into her household.

Downton's stories also offer lessons about how to balance rigid moral standards against the needs of real human beings. For almost every situation its inhabitants face, the rule that first surfaces to govern "right thinking" has to be weighed against its impact on human dignity, trust, and interpersonal relationships. The answer is often found in a compromise which is still ethical but which recognizes that being right is usually more important than being righteous. When the chauffeur, Tom, falls for Lord Grantham's daughter, is it ultimately his daughter's happiness that trumps his disdain for this violation of class consciousness.

The characters provide us as well with lessons on the power of diversity in addressing the challenges of change. For every problem that befalls Downton and its inhabitants, someone possesses the talents to deal with it. If Lord Grantham uses his influence and money to secure the freedom of the wrongly-convicted Mr. Bates, Bates uses his less than aristocratic skills at forgery and pick-pocketing to save Lord Grantham from the embarrassing theft of a letter that could publicly embarrass the Crown Prince in a scandal.

In the end, the family that is Downton Abbey manages to make it through war, death, financial threats, and the inevitable dissolution of a way of life for which the larger forces of history have neither respect nor nostalgia. They know they are losing something, and sense that they will lose more. But they also recognize that they are preserving the core of who they are. Despite change, they are hanging on to the parts of themselves that ought to be timeless, with each other as caretakers of the "village" that sustains them. If that is a reason for a fictional series to be so popular, it is a good explanation for at least part of that popularity.