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Why We Love Downton

by Rachel DiCarlo Currie

Writing in the Daily Beast early in 2012, British historian Simon Schama lamented that Americans were “gripped by the clammy delirium of nostalgia”: Not only were tea partiers yearning for a mythical past of laissez-faire capitalism, the public at large was cock-a-hoop over “a servile soap opera” that offered “a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery.” How to explain the monster success in the United States of the British series Downton Abbey? Schama, who is best known for scripting and narrating the 15-part BBC documentary A History of Britain, pointed to our collective appetite for “cultural necrophilia,” which would naturally lead us to devour an Edwardian costume drama that is “fabulously frocked, and acted, and overacted, and hyper-overacted.”

An estimated 24 million viewers watched Season 3 of Downton on PBS, with 12.3 million tuning in for the February 17 finale. Michelle Obama is said to be a huge fan, and two of the show’s stars were invited to attend the March 2012 White House state dinner for British prime minister David Cameron. (Nor is the show’s appeal limited to the Anglosphere. It is enormously popular everywhere from Denmark and Sweden, to Israel and Russia, to Singapore and South Korea. According to the New York Times, the Downton actor who plays Mr. Carson, the loyal butler, was visiting ancient Hindu temples in rural Cambodia when he was “swarmed by a group of Asian tourists screaming, ‘Mr. Carson!’”)

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