Michelle Obama wants a sneak preview of Downton Abbey because, weirdly, it captures the zeitgeist

Why is it this buttoned-up drama is such a hit in the US?

Related Topics

Having been rather busy on the campaign trail up until last week, it's understandable that America's First Lady Michelle Obama is keen to curl up on the sofa with her hubby and a decent box set. She was so desperate to know what happens in Julian Fellowes' hit series Downton Abbey that she wrote to ITV1 requesting to see Series Three before it airs in America on 6 January next year.

The First Family could right now be sobbing their hearts outs at you-know-what, harrumphing in frustration at Earl Grantham's refusal to modernise and wondering how Lady Edith has gone from “an old man's drudge” to a sought-after newspaper columnist.

The programme has earned a slew of Emmy Awards, attracting audiences of 5.4m on US channel PBS and been described by Gawker as “everyone's favourite buttoned-up British passionstravaganza”.

But while the trials and errors of stiff upper lip aristocrats and their servants keep us Brits entertained, why is it so popular in America?

Unlike other UK television exports such as The Office, The Inbetweeners, Sherlock and (the impending) Gavin & Stacey, Downton has avoided being remade into a shinier, sleeker American-speaking animal. America, the Land of the Free, whose inhabitants claim it has no class system, loves a class-based drama as its appetite for Upstairs Downstairs in the 70s showed – but it probably doesn't want to admit to having the same social gulfs.

Of course, Fellowes' characters are based on institutions, ideas and historical precedents in this country that are more neatly associated with the Tories than staunch liberalism. But while Earl Grantham might appear pompous and overstuffed, the writer gives him an almost unbelievable empathy for his fellow man.

In Series Three we see him take pity on closet homosexual Thomas, who has misread the signs and made a pass at fellow servant Jimmy. The Earl ensures he isn't fired, noting that, as a schoolboy at Eton: “If I'd screamed blue murder every time someone tried to kiss me, I'd have been hoarse within a month.”

Fellowes has been criticised for making characters speak like 21st century gay rights activists and feminists rather than Suffragettes. The writer always supports the underdog, using lefty moral codes. In short, Lord Grantham is so far removed from Mitt Romney and the Republicans that if a Downton character were to announce she needed an abortion, he would probably call Doctor Clarkson himself – and foot the bill.

President Obama might have used one of the dowager Countess' best lines his campaign mantra: “Don't be defeatist, dear. It's very middle-class.” And the fact that he wasn't (defeated that is), suggests that the anachronistic Downton speaks much more for our time on both sides of the pond, than the one it is set in.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Chemistry Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

English Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

English Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: [ Megan Smith 22/09/2014 17:00:...

Foundation and KS1 Teacher

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Foundation and Key Stage 1...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A survey by Which? found that some of the UK’s biggest airports, including Heathrow, left travellers the most agitated  

Third-runway momentum is gathering. We need to stop it in its tracks

Mary Dejevsky
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger  

Will Cuddlr do for hugging what Tinder and Grindr did for sex?

Jessica Brown Jessica Brown
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments