'Downton Abbey': The newest season premiere and the influence of the show

The premiere for the final season of 'Downton' aired on Jan. 3. As the end of the British program nears, how is its influence being felt in the television industry?

Nick Briggs/PBS/Carnival Film and Television for Masterpiece/AP
'Downton Abbey' stars Jim Carter (l.) and Phyllis Logan (r.).

The final season of the British drama “Downton Abbey” premiered on Jan. 3. 

On the sixth season premiere, a major theme was the change that was in the air, as the time of big country houses and a large staff appeared to be on the decline. The aristocratic family members and their servants were both concerned by the upheaval that seemed to be ahead.

During the premiere, oldest Crawley daughter Mary encountered a chambermaid at a hotel where she and her love interest, Lord Gillingham, had stayed the night. The chambermaid attempted to blackmail her, threatening to reveal Mary’s stay there.

The long-running plotline of the legal troubles of valet Bates and his maid wife Anna seems to have been resolved, as Anna is now no longer suspected of having murdered another servant, Mr. Green. 

In addition, the Dowager Countess, Violet, and Mary’s mother-in-law Isobel became divided over what will happen to the hospital in the area, which could be put under the charge of the county hospital or still be a matter for the town.

As “Downton” comes to a close (its final episode is set to air in March), one of the most well-reviewed shows of the past several years will be going off the air. The show itself recalled past historical England-set series like “Upstairs, Downstairs” and became a phenomenon.

In the entertainment industry, success almost always spawns imitators. (See the many shows that have tried to capture the success of HBO’s fantasy series “Game of Thrones,” from the new MTV program “The Shannara Chronicles,” which are also based on fantasy novels, and Starz’s “Outlander,” which are also based on lengthy books with a big fan base).

What is interesting, though, is that more TV costume dramas have not appeared on the scene since “Downton” found such success. “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes has discussed for some time now his plans to work on a show called “The Gilded Age” for NBC and the program sounds like it would be similar to “Downton,” so that could be a product of the success of “Downton.”

But there haven’t been a lot of other programs set at English country houses at, for example, the big four networks. The overwhelming majority of broadcast shows are set in modern times and are not period dramas.

By contrast, cable networks, for example, have invested in many historical dramas, with shows like “Outlander,” Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful” and “Masters of Sex,” and AMC’s “Mad Men” (now gone), to name a few, airing on cable.

Why would broadcast networks not try for more costume dramas? For one, it can be assumed they’re fairly expensive. The look of the sets and costumes on “Downton” have been praised by critics – the outfits worn by the female characters on “Downton” have stayed elaborate through the time periods depicted on the show – but they can’t have come cheaply.

In addition, PBS was a natural home for “Downton.” The 1970s hit series “Upstairs Downstairs," for one, ran on public television. Broadcast networks might assume that those looking for such fare would turn to PBS, which has already established itself as the home of such programs. 

One way the influence of “Downton” may be felt is in the increase of soapy programs on broadcast television. Programs with these kinds of plot lines never really went away, but “Downton,” with its storylines involving scandalous love affairs and sudden accidents, enthralled many viewers. Since then, programs like Fox’s “Empire,” which details the fortunes of a family in the music business, and ABC’s “Nashville,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” all of which feature many plot twists, all came on the air. 

Other factors, like the success “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes had had with the show “Grey’s Anatomy,” no doubt contributed to these shows coming on the air as well. But the success of “Downton” also showed that viewers wanted these kinds of programs. 

Now the question will be whether NBC can recapture the success of “Downton” with “Gilded” and whether broadcast viewers will enjoy a historical program.

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