Skip to main content
john doyle: television

More than ever, there is a weird disconnect between mainstream coverage of television and the emotional connection that viewers have with certain TV series.

There is so much TV, so many channels and shows and so little time for many viewers to indulge. There is massive coverage of meaningless shows, much of it fuelled by marketing. There is coverage of trends and ratings, issues that often have no significance to anyone outside small groups of broadcasting execs sitting around a glass table in a sleek building somewhere in Toronto, Vancouver or Los Angeles.

Next week I'll be in L.A. for the mid-season presentation by various network and cable outfits. As with so much TV these days, especially network TV, there is really only one focus. The focus is on getting the attention of that most desirable demographic – female, 25-54 (skewing 35-54), in white-collar occupations and with upscale HHI (household income) profiles within the $75K+ bracket.

Got that? Good. And what series already has a massive audience in that very demographic? Well, it's on PBS and it comes under the "Masterpiece" banner.

Downton Abbey (Sunday, PBS, 9 p.m. on Masterpiece Classic) is a massive hit, by any standards. Networks would kill for the kind of devotion that viewers – especially female viewers – have for this strange and alluring soap opera. The first season of four episodes had an average of five million viewers in the United States.

Mind you, the popularity of Downton is a mystery to many in the TV racket – why is it one of those rare series that viewers watch with unabashed pleasure? Trying to solve the mystery isn't easy. It has familiar elements of British series and movies – from Upstairs, Downstairs to Gosford Park – and nimbly weaves those elements into addictive storytelling. There is pathos and irony. There is nothing terrifically challenging or provocative. There are servants and masters. The setting is the grand English mansion, Downton. The first series opened in 1912. The Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), owner of Downton, and his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and their three daughters no longer had a male heir to inherit the property. No one knew what would happen to the house, lands and servants. At regular intervals, the Earl's formidable mother (Maggie Smith), interfering and unhelpful, arrived to make caustic remarks.

Among the servants, a plot to have the new valet fired went awry. What unfolded was England shifting course and changing. the old order dying slowly. The first series ended with the beginning of the First World War. As this new batch of episodes begins, it is 1916 and the war overwhelms everything.

Whither the main characters? Some viewers will obsess on Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who found herself in bed with a dead Turkish chap in the first season and then had a tangled relationship with nice Matthew (Dan Stevens), whom the family wanted her desperately to marry, but things fell apart. Oh Mary, Mary. In the servants' quarters, scheming and conniving goes on and on. Uppity maids are put in their place.

Meanwhile, it us established that life in the trenches is hell. For both the upper-class toffs and the servants who enlisted. A man who talks too much because he is going mad with despair is shot. Back at Downton, the ladies try to do their bit for the war effort, with some volunteering to tend to wounded soldiers. Will they be horrified? Oh yes. The chap in charge downstairs says things like, "I have information that I've no proper claim to." He means that he's just heard something juicy.

In truth, much of what happens in the new Downton Abbey is absolute nonsense. The craftiness of the storytelling, with all its twists and turns, seems less assured. Some twists, like the fate of nice Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), the troubled but noble valet, are outrageous and risible.

And yet of course, the series will be consumed with gusto and great satisfaction by many viewers.

Over in Britain, where the Christmas Special episode of Downton set some sort of record for the number of viewers, the series makes some people very uneasy. In The Sunday Times, critic A.A. Gill wrote, "As a format and a concept, it is everything I despise and despair of on British television: National Trust sentimentality, costumed comfort drama that flogs an embarrassing, demeaning and bogus vision of the place I live in." Still, he admired the craft in the storytelling. The series's creator, Julian Fellowes, reacted to criticism of the series by saying, "All we get is this permanent negative nitpicking from the left."

Fellowes, a Conservative supporter, obviously sees debate about the show as political. He's right, but none of it matters. Will Lady Mary carry a torch for that nice Matthew? Oh yes. Rest assured, the romance lives on. The mystery of Downton Abbey is solved, right there. I think.

Check local listings.