The first time I watched Downton Abbey, I was so delighted that I immediately messaged a friend about it. "This show is so classy!" I wrote. "At the end of every episode I feel like I've read a Victorian novel."
Since then, Downton Abbey has won awards, received critical acclaim and become a global pop-culture phenomenon. So it's worth reflecting on the enduring appeal of this series, which is returning for its third season on BBC Entertainment.
Because, here's the thing: the more I watch Downton Abbey, the more I become convinced that my initial impression was wrong. The series does not have literary pretensions. It isn't high culture. In fact, Downton Abbey has less in common with a typical BBC historical drama than it does with a more popular genre of television: the soap opera.
This isn't a bad thing, necessarily. Downton Abbey isn't just any soap opera. It's a very, very good soap opera. It's a soap opera that features first-rate performances, sumptuous production values and refined British accents.
Because of this, the programme has become accepted – even required! – viewing for the highbrow set. This is a wonderful development, because it means that, unlike, say, Gossip Girl, Downton Abbey can be watched guilt-free. But make no mistake: the true genius of this series is the way that it combines lowbrow plotlines with highbrow style.
With regard to style, the show's third season remains as immaculate as ever. The cast, featuring luminaries such as Maggie Smith and Jim Carter, is positively drowning in fine acting talent. And the series is still one of very few on television that is not filmed on a set. All the interior and exterior shots are filmed on Highclere Castle, an actual 200-year-old English stately home, and it's difficult to overstate the sense of authenticity that this adds to the production.
However, the true appeal of the series lies in the tawdry, delightful and occasionally overwrought antics of its characters. Here, again, the third season does not
The introduction of Shirley MacLaine (as the American mother of Lady Grantham) gives the dowager countess (played by Smith) some competition for the title of most acerbic conversationalist at the dinner table.
Lady Edith continues to be absurdly unlucky in love. Lady Sybil returns with her Irish revolutionary husband in tow.
Cousin Isobel scandalises the neighbourhood by hiring a former prostitute. Thomas gets to have a gay rights moment. There are weddings, money shortages, medical scares and funerals.
Terrible tragedies will befall some of these characters and you, dear viewer, will be heartbroken.
I could, if I was being uncharitable, complain about certain details. The writers are too fond of creating problems and then fixing them with deus ex machina solutions. The story of Mr Bates, the wrongly imprisoned valet, has become increasingly tedious. If I really wanted to be unkind, I could point out that Matthew and Mary, who seemed like such a dreamily perfect pairing during the first two seasons, have become rather dull and ordinary now that they are actually together. (There's a reason Jane Austen never wrote Pride and Prejudice 2: The Married Years.)
But these are small quibbles. The appeal of a high-quality soap opera lies in its ability to transcend the mundane, to imbue everyday events with a sense of world-historical significance.
Downton Abbey is exceptionally good at doing this. It sucks the viewer into its world and convinces you, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the question of who should be first footman, or the debate over whether it's appropriate to wear a daytime suit to dinner, is an issue is that is really, truly worth caring about.
Even in its silliest moments, Downton Abbey is splendidly entertaining.
Season three of Downton Abbey is broadcast on Sundays at 9pm on BBC Entertainment