Vickroy: Explaining the appeal of ‘Downton Abbey’
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy January 9, 2013 12:34PM
Mary Kunkel, center, talks with friends at the public library after a party for fans of the PBS series "Downton Abbey," in Tinley Park, IL, on Saturday, January 5, 2013. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 11, 2013 6:33AM
It’s the authentic sets. It’s the divine costumes.
It’s the love stories, the relationship tangles, the intrigue, the history, and, truth be told, it’s the way it makes us feel — captivated and oh, so entertained.
It’s hard to apply a single reason to the incredible popularity of PBS’ “Downton Abbey.” Fans only know they can’t wait until Sunday nights for the next episode.
Barbara Skrobuton was on a flight back from Europe when she was introduced to the gracious Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), the quick-witted Violet (Maggie Smith) and the intriguing world of “Downton Abbey.”
Skrobuton, of Oak Forest, was instantly hooked.
“Really hooked. The people were so proper but so nice,” she said. “I just love the characters and the series.”
She is hardly alone. Fans of the “Masterpiece” series packed the Tinley Park Public Library on Saturday for a chance to watch a screening of Season 2’s final episode with like-minded viewers before Season 3 debuted Sunday night on PBS.
The series, about the aristocratic Crawley family and its endearing servants, is set in rural Edwardian England. It began with the sinking of the Titanic and took viewers through World War I. As Season 2 wraps, the war has just ended, leaving everyone bonded and scarred in some way.
“Downton Abbey” was nominated for 16 Emmys in 2012 and won three. It is the most-watched “Masterpiece” series on record. Season 2’s finale drew 5.4 million viewers.
Granted, most at the library’s viewing party already had seen Season 2’s finale, and many had seen it multiple times.
“This is one of the best series ever,” said Eileen Serio, of Tinley Park. “Last night when I was watching it again for the 100th time, my granddaughter said, ‘How many times are you going to watch this?’ ”
Serio explained her fascination.
“I’m Irish. I’ve been to England. The ‘downstairs’ people in this series are so much like the people I met there,” she said. “I’ll call my friends and say, ‘I’m going to watch that again, want to come over?’ and they do.”
Sue Bailey, marketing and community outreach specialist at the Tinley Park library, said she and a friend were talking one day about how much they enjoyed the series when the idea for having a Downton Abbey party occurred to her.
“I thought we’d get maybe 20 to 30 people,” she said.
On the first day of registration they had more than 60. The event ended up filling to its 100-seat capacity.
“We get together on Sunday nights to watch it. I like all the different stories and how they mesh, the love angles, the intrigue,” said Lillian Van Swol, of Tinley Park, who attended the screening with her cousin, Helen Ochman, of Munster.
If you think it is just people of a certain age who are interested in the ways of the English, think again.
Maria Stevens, 14, and her sister Margot, 17, were among the youngest in attendance. Their mom, Donna Stevens, said she brought the DVD of Season 2 along on a driving trip to Florida. The Homer Glen girls watched it in the van and were quickly hooked.
“I like the parts of the story not about the war,” Maria said. “The love stories, the weddings.”
Donna said it’s interesting to watch how differently the servants and aristocrats lived.
“All of the characters are wonderful,” she said. “They are such great actors.”
Shirley MacLaine joined the cast in Season 3, adding a somewhat carefree, if not tacky, American touch to the refinement.
Angelo Rossi and his wife, Domenica, of Tinley Park, believe the series provides some of the best viewing on television.
“Sure beats reality shows,” Domenica said.
“I think Americans are fascinated with how people across the water live and lived. I like history. I like the setting. Growing up, you hear so much about Britain and India. It’s good to see what that was like,” Angelo said.
On Tuesday night, the Orland Park Public Library hosted “The Making of Downton Abbey: Setting the Scene.”
Barbara Geiger, a landscape historian who teaches in the college of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, as well as at the University of Chicago, explained to the crowd of 40 how the process of “entail,” the practice predetermining how land will be handed down into perpetuity, works. She traced the origins of the practice back to the time of William the Conqueror and talked about why it plays such a critical role in “Downton Abbey.”
Geiger was scheduled to give the same presentation at the Frankfort Public Library on Wednesday night. She has given more than 30 such presentations across the Chicago area.
Allan Fletcher, of Oak Lawn, attended the Orland Park presentation because he’s interested in British history.
“It’s funny; the English are fascinated by the Americans and the Americans are fascinated by the English,” he said.
There was comfort, he said, in a lifestyle in which everyone knew their place.
“It may not have been a good place, but you knew what was expected,” he said.
Just like fans of reality shows and even football games tend to do, many “Downton Abbey” viewers share the experience with like-minded friends and family.
Beth Kulpinski, of Oak Lawn, watches the show with her mother, Marge Kulpinski. Beth’s favorite character is Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery).
“She’s feisty and doesn’t seem so conventional. She does realize when she’s wrong, though, and then begs for forgiveness. She’s human. She’s great,” Kulpinski said.
Kathy O’Brien was channel-surfing one day and stopped at a show that featured women in Edwardian-era dresses and men in tails.
“I went, ‘Ooooh,’ ” she said. The Orland Park resident said she’s been hooked ever since.
“I think it’s so popular because the era is so different from what we’re used to,” she said. “I love the culture, the servants and the aristocracy and the fact that they totally dress for everything.”
The show’s writer, Julian Fellowes, tried to explain Americans’ fascination with the series when he was interviewed on National Public Radio earlier this week. He told listeners that he believed the orderly way of life the show depicts has special appeal in a world that seems chaotic by contrast.