When Downton Abbey's third season premiered earlier this month, it netted 7.9 million viewers, up 96 percent from the Season 2 premiere and earning larger audiences that week than home-country hits such as The Bachelor, The Biggest Loser and New Girl. So what exactly is it about a British period drama that has Americans in a tizzy? TVGuide.com breaks down the six biggest reasons why:
1. It's a soap opera, but makes us feel classy When Downton first premiered, there was a lot confusion about how a supposed stuffy British import, on PBS no less, had become as buzzworthy as Lost. But it all became clear once you realized that Downton isn't your typical period drama; it's actually a soap opera. But unlike your typical soap fare, Downton is something you can discuss proudly in any company. The series' British origins and historical setting lend it an air of High Culture that fellow prime-time soaps Grey's Anatomy, 90210 and Revenge just don't carry.
2. We're suckers for romance, but impatient Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery) are the series' cornerstone couple, but instead of milking the will-they-won't-they to within an inch of its life, Season 3 rewarded anxious fans with nothing less than their wedding! But that doesn't mean Downton isn't full of the hopelessly romantic, unrequited love stories we can't help but adore. Though the couple's wedding may have only taken 17 episodes to arrive for us, for Matthew and Mary it took eight years! Frankly, to keep them apart any longer would have been torture.
3. Voyeuristic materialism Even with chaos surrounding them (financial ruin, World War I, the Spanish flu), the Crawleys always look the part of the glamorous English upper class. There's something truly magical about seeing these women decked out in early 20th century British fashions that provides us with an exotic escape from our own lives, full of skinny jeans and white T's (how pedestrian they now seem in comparison to Mary's luxurious hair jewelry). But the clothes would be nothing without Downton's stately interiors (gaudy tapestries, carved ceilings, unnecessarily massive columns). As 30 Rock's Liz Lemon would say, "I want to go to there!"
Of course, we would never dare spend as much time or money as the Crawleys to re-create their lavish aesthetic in reality. But that's what makes Downton great: we're allowed to guiltlessly indulge our fascination with their ostentatious lifestyle free of charge.
4. We're in a similar situation economically and socially While Downton's lush aesthetic proves a fair distraction from the social issues the series touches upon, there are striking similarities to our own — sadly, far less glamorous — society. If transported to modern day, it isn't hard to imagine the servants rising up in an "Occupy Downton" movement, Thomas (Rob James-Collier) becoming inspired after watching an "It Gets Better" video, or Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Edith (Laura Carmichael) joining the charge for women's rights and sexual liberation.
But the beauty of Downton is that, while we all can relate, each dominant political view believes the series indoctrinates viewers to their personal ideology. Those on the right think the wealthy Granthams' generosity teaches us to love the rich elite, who in their eyes exist to benefit the poor, while the left respects the Granthams for championing healthcare and Matthew's subtle pushes for egalitarianism.
5. It reminds us that "Honor" is more than just the name of Jessica Alba's daughter The unfairness of the class system aside, there is something unexpectedly aspirational about the tenants of Downton. Everyone from Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to Molesley the valet is concerned with maintaining a sense of principle in their day-to-day lives. Though many struggle against the demands of their social roles, they nonetheless find honor in them and always strive for perfection without sacrificing their dignity.
And after being flooded with so many Jersey Shore and Jerry Springer copycats, it's refreshing to see that some people still espouse strong moral values (even if they are on a fictional British drama).
6. The Dowager Countess No single Downton character has inspired as much love (and respect) as the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and her indisputable sass-mouth. A living testament to English tradition, Lady Violet is never afraid to share her biting opinions and put people in their place. Be it relationship advice or economic put-downs, the Dowager is never wrong and epitomizes the type of sassy person everyone should aspire to be when they're old.
Still not convinced of the Dowager's domination or simply want to revel in her total boss-ness? Check out Lady Violet's best zingers below and share your favorite reasons to watch Downton:
Downton Abbey airs Sundays at 9/8c on PBS.