Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television

Posted on: March 9th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 7 Comments

I think by now many of the regular readers on this blog know three things about me. I love history. I love writing about history. And I pretty much think about history, and place, and the past about 367 million times a day.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that I think about the power of place and the past when doing the most mundane things -- walking, cooking, and watching television.

The cast of Downton Abbey with the real star in the background. (Photo: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE)

Like many, many people, I've been enamored with the British period drama Downton Abbey, which just finished its second season run on PBS. For those that haven't seen it, it begins in pre-World War I England and gives viewers a glimpse into the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants through the intervening years.

Matthew and Lady Mary Crawley, the subjects of one of the great Downton love stories, inside the house. (Photo: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE)

What I love about Downton Abbey is that the story centers around the estate, a magnificent house full of both grand (for the lords and ladies) and humble (for the staff) public and private spaces that serves as a mechanism for how a family and their employees lived in the early 20th century. The way the building is used over the two seasons reflects society and class as changes in women's roles, war, and disease take its toll. But Downton is used as more than a set piece. The home is a crucial character in itself, and plays a crucial role for how each of the characters defines themselves.

Daisy, a kitchen maid, inside the reproduced manor kitchen. (Photo: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE)

This isn't necessarily something new. After all, the whole premise of the show Cheers is to tell the story of a group of bar patrons in a particular space. Then there are three of my favorites -- The West Wing, LOST, and (nerd alert) Battlestar Galactica -- which are incredibly place-centric, as ninety percent of each episode occurs within their respective main locations: The White House, an island, or a giant spaceship that serves as the only defender against the enemies of humanity (try saying that three times fast).

What other shows out there use place to tell their story? We know of course that there are plenty of serials and sitcoms that use cities as the backdrop to their storylines. The stories in Mad Men, for example, are integrally tied to their place in mid-century New York.

The cast of AMC's Mad Men series, set in 1960s New York City. (Photo: AMC)

The point, perhaps, that I am trying to make is that as a preservationist and a historian, I'm drawn to shows that integrate where they are with the people whose lives intersect in those spaces. And it's the same for the real world, since the places we save are often inherently important because of the mark of individuals or groups on them, or our own modern interactions or associations with them.

I recently watched an episode of Dr. Who (a show with a time-traveling theme) where the main character presents a theory that there are fixed points in time that can never change -- that events will always happen in this time and this place no matter what tries to influence them. It's a fanciful idea, one that appeals to me as a historian because of how we think about the "power of place" -- that an important way that we can tell the story of our past and make it tangible is by recognizing the confluence of people, places, and events in time.

What do you think? Do you love a television show because it reminds you of history, place, or preservation? Sound off below!

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Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

General, Pop Culture, Reflections

7 Responses

  1. Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television « …and this is what comes next

    March 9, 2012

    […] blog. You can read the post with the awesome-as-usual Downton Abbey images here but I’ve also included the text […]

  2. Rebecca

    March 9, 2012

    Priya, I love this post!

    Here’s an Architectural Digest article on the same subject – with some amazing photographs.

    Town and Country has a great article in the Feb 2012 edition on the castle itself, including interviews with the current owners. Too bad a subscription is required to view the article online. This link has photographs only:

  3. Joan

    March 9, 2012

    Another great post as usual, Priya! I love Downton Abbey (and other shows) for the same reasons you outline. The house itself is as much a part of the cast as the rest of the ensemble.

  4. Muriel

    March 9, 2012

    I absolutely loved Downton Abbey. I even looked it up on the Web to find out more about the place. I do think I missed an episode – the war I think, but did get to see the end. Will there be a sequel to Bates imprisonment? I hope so, I could watch the English shows all the time.

  5. Lindsey

    March 12, 2012

    Great post. Downton is easily one of favorite shows. It slips a history leasson in to all the drama of the time. I love the episode the ends with Lady Syble wearing pantaloons and everyone is just stunned. It was great! But that drama couldnt have been replicated in today’s time.

  6. Jan Cannon

    March 15, 2012

    Priya, thanks for a great post. I love Downton Abbey, of course, and mostly because of the history and characters. Another show I particularly like for “power of place” is Southland. Its gritty, true to life issues revolve around South L.A. and the cops who patrol that area. Great storylines and characters.