The DNA of Downton Abbey

Media by Charley Phillips

Written by Madeline Kohlberg. Media by Charley Phillips.


So, I was a bit late to the whole Downton Abbey craze.  During the airing of the second series, my grandma told me about the show, and she sounded really excited about it.  I wasn’t entirely sure it was something that I’d be into.  But I happened to stumble into an episode while channel

Source: Vanity Fair
Source: Vanity Fair

surfing one Sunday night, and thought that I might as well.  I’m a sucker for period dramas…

It turned out to be quite an enjoyable show.  It’s a period drama filled with butlers, housekeepers and maids waiting hand and foot on aristocrats who struggle to accept the changing times as England moves through the twentieth century.  I recently had the chance to attend a lecture on the background surrounding the show at SLU, and it got me thinking.

It’s not a new concept in British television, with Downton Abbey drawing inspiration from media like Upstairs, Downstairs, The House of Elliot, and Gosford Park, but there’s something about this particular show that’s captured the imagination of particularly the American viewing audience.  And the allure is (probably) not entirely due to the captivating accents, though that certainly doesn’t hurt…

Media by Charley Phillips.

There are a lot of elements in Downton that are reminiscent of these older pieces of media (the DNA, if you will), and they are particularly noticeable in the first series.  You have the scheming footman, the plump cook, the aristocratic family that’s strangely good to the servants below stairs.  There are worlds shattered with the start of the first World War,

and entire paradigm shifts as servant and master alike are sent off to fight for their country.

Still, Downton is not simply a rehash of the old television and movies that also employ these tropes.  Shows like Upstairs, Downstairs are pretty bleak, in all honesty.  There’s not much humour to be had, and they watch a lot like there’s only a message to be had and nothing more.  If you watch Downton, it’s at the other end of the spectrum as far as merry soap opera melodrama is concerned.  Not too over the top, not too dull.  You need the humor and glee provided by the characters for a good story, and the writing frequently doesn’t disappoint.

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: Good heavens, what am I sitting on?
Matthew Crawley: A swivel… chair.
Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: Oh, another modern brainwave?
Matthew Crawley: Not very modern; they were invented by Thomas Jefferson.


Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: Why does every day involve a fight with an American?

  • Series 1, Episode 4

Documenting a fascinating time in British history is interesting all on its own, but the way that Downton Abbey has been able to take so many elements and weave them all together is part of the secret.  The format and pacing of the show is very suggestive of American television, the relatable characters, the messages about the passage of time in all eras all work together to create something new.

And to think that I’d never have seen it if it hadn’t been for the insistence of my grandmother…


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