When speaking of the 21st century television renaissance, certain shows are considered canon. "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad," "Game of Thrones," "Homeland," "The Walking Dead," "Glee," "Modern Family" and "The Good Wife" all debuted at a time when conventional wisdom had put TV on life-support, the perceived victim of reality programming and the smartphone revolution. Individually and collectively, they proved all the grim prognostications wrong.
But no series did it as vividly, broadly and utterly unexpectedly as "Downton Abbey."
Julian Fellowes' gorgeous drawing-room soap, which ends Sunday night, seemed to come out of nowhere, galloping in (if not on a white horse, then at least a lovely yellow Lab named Isis), to save "Masterpiece," PBS and the fading belief that a broad demographic crossover was still possible for a scripted drama with a PG rating and no forensic specialist in sight.
In actuality, it came from Britain's ITV where, as a seemingly natural extension of Fellowes' Oscar-winning script for "Gosford Park," it had already been an enormous hit. Even so, the nearly instantaneous delirium that greeted its January 2011 debut in the States, where the PBS brand was so faded that KCET had severed ties just a few months before, took everyone by surprise.
Viewers who tuned in hoping for an updated "Upstairs, Downstairs," or just the sight of Maggie Smith, were soon talking up the show with as much hyperbolic rhapsody as any "Mad Men" fan or Gleek.
Obsessive devotion to a television show was still, in general, a relatively new concept. "Downton," with its tea-sipping, shirt-stud-choosing, "Oh, must I wear full mourning, Papa?" mien, seemed the antithesis of fan culture. Never mind its lack of blood, guts, undead, bared breasts, brothels or profanity.
Two men did kiss in the second episode, but anything approaching sex occurred strictly off-stage. Historic tragedies were referenced, but conspiracies were mostly confined to schemes involving ambitious footmen (and later, those troublesome Irish, who eventually came 'round).
It seemed, in theory anyway, aimed at the early bird frequenters of art-house theaters, people who could name all the Merchant/Ivory films, chronologically.
Yet as with so many large and seemingly immovable forces that encountered Smith's Lady Violet and the rest of Downton's inhabitants, the demographics fell like dominoes.
Women, men, young, old, rich, poor, television fanatics and television illiterates — most everyone loved "Downton."
They loved Smith and Lady Violet's tart tongue; they loved the snotty Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and her spats with sulky Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael); they loved the limping but stoic Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his burgeoning romance with Anna (Joanne Froggatt). They loved using the word "valet" with a hard "t" and learning the intricacies of an entailment.
More than anything, perhaps, fans loved the richly detailed loveliness of life at Downton almost as much as did those who lived there.
Far from the biting satire that was "Gosford Park," "Downton" quickly settled into a mildly liberal and highly sentimental period drama. In the year approaching (and then those following) World War I, the "old ways" appeared on the cusp of radical change.
Electricity, the telephone, women's suffrage, political unrest all touched the characters of "Downton," albeit lightly enough to keep the dinner candles lighted, the gleaming silver perfectly in place. With an obvious soft spot for the aristocracy, Fellowes quickly became the master of artisanal, aspirational history. The Martha Stewart of period drama.
Just as quickly, "Downton Abbey" became PBS' first bona-fide hit in years. It won six Emmys in its first season (which was entered in the movie or miniseries category) and was soon racking up numbers that outpaced those of many hit shows on cable and broadcast networks (more than 10 million tuned in for the premieres of Seasons 4, 5 and 6).
Together with "Mad Men," "Downton" launched a thousand period dramas; suddenly, we were all discovering things we did not know about the history of sanitation disposal and early forms of birth control. Even HBO took note; the premium cable titan aired BBC's "Parade's End" in 2013 (which may be the first and only time HBO took a page from the PBS playbook).
Unlike many networks, PBS already knew a thing or two about merchandising, and soon those Signal catalogs were filled with "Downton"-related merchandise. Highclere Castle became a vacation destination, while venues from the local tea shop to the Queen Mary began staging "Downton" events.
A standout even in the new "golden age," the show was increasingly referenced on talk shows, in the news and by characters on other shows. In 2014, when George Clooney starred in a spoof for Britain's Text Santa fundraiser, it seemed to have hit full market saturation. Until LeBron James talked about it in "Trainwreck." "We watching 'Downton Abbey' later?" he asks his friend, played by Bill Hader. "I'm watching it tonight because I'm not going to practice and all the guys are talking about it, and I'm left out."
When a PBS series about fictitious post-Edwardian aristocrats and their staff becomes an inside joke made by an NBA star in a movie by Judd Apatow and starring Amy Schumer, something very big has happened.
Like so many shows that debuted in the early 21st century, "Downton Abbey" brought cinematic grandeur to the flat screen; but unlike other series, in which an Oscar winner might direct or write an episode or two, Fellowes remained the show's only writer, one of if not the first, of TV's new auteurs. The singleness of his vision most certainly led to its tendency toward repetition (How many fortunes can one man inherit? Are the Bateses truly cursed?), but it also created an air of consistency.
"Downton" proved that drama didn't have to be dark or bloody or revolve around some ill-shaven antihero to be popular and good, which was part of the reason it was so popular.
Prestige dramas increasingly shared a penchant for grit and grime, both literal and metaphorical. Neither of which were allowed to mar the glorious sheen of "Downton," or at least not for very long.
Just as soot and dust were whisked away as soon as they were spotted, the ugliness of homophobia, adultery, anti-Semitism or the limits of medicine were referenced and then we all moved into the dining room for dinner. Or onto the grounds for the local fair. What a relief to know that it was all, mostly, going to come around all right.
And while much of that new golden age involved platforms either new (Netflix, Amazon) or renovated (AMC and virtually every niche cable station), "Downton" came from PBS, the platform voted Most Likely to Fall in the new youth-'n'-their-gadgets-driven market. Even its luck in obtaining the U.S. rights to "Sherlock" hadn't helped much, until "Downton" reminded everyone just how splendid Sunday nights with "Masterpiece" could be.
And though there's no use arguing that "Downton" had the same audience as "The Walking Dead" or "Game of Thrones," there was probably more crossover than you'd think. Like the Crawley estate, television's landscape was saved from bankruptcy by its ability to change, to realize there's no real difference between upstairs and down — all stories have value, if you tell them properly.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)