Surprise hit ‘Downton Abbey’ refreshes the costume drama

One of the most talked about TV shows of the past year takes place in England in the 1910s and is primarily set in a large estate where the extravagantly rich and their servants are the main characters. Downton Abbey is entirely dialogue-based, with very little physical action to move the plot forward. It’s a soap opera that has more than four million viewers weekly for PBS, and even more people watched the series when it aired in the UK. So why has this English drama become such an unlikely hit?

Put simply, Downton Abbey is a very fun show for inexplicable reasons. The primary plot is based around an inheritance crisis at the eponymous estate, in which the primary heirs died when the Titanic sank. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) discovers his next male heir to be an unknown distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who has no interest in becoming part of the upper class. Lord Grantham already has three daughters, but due to the laws at the time, they are unable to be named heirs, simply because they are female.

Downton Abbey’s popularity is helped by its many tropes: it is a relationship drama, a coming-of-age story, a feminist argument and a character study of both ends of society. The interaction between the fantastic characters, both rich and poor, leads to an intriguing, tragic and occasionally funny drama that knows its characters better than most TV shows.

Now in its second season, the series has jumped ahead to World War I, leading to more tragedy and an occasional change in scenery to the battlefields of France. In this time of war, the barriers among the classes come down slightly, leading to a blend of the characters in ways that never happened in season one.

Downton Abbey is truly unlike anything else on television, and the epic range it successfully covers lead to a variety of stories that (mostly) stay consistently interesting over the season.