Arts

Downton Abbey Season 6: British period drama enters final season

Series set a century ago put historical drama on front burner

TV-Downton Returns

Lady Edith, played by Laura Carmichael, has not had the easiest or happiest life on Downton Abbey, which returns for its final season on North American television screens Sunday night. (PBS/Masterpiece, Nick Briggs/Associated Press)

 shares

 

In a world of worries over Syrian refugees or the fate of the warming planet, they are hardly the questions with the highest priority.

Still, will the cold, buttoned-up Lady Mary ever marry again? And what about her younger sister, poor Lady Edith? Can a woman who has so often been let down by life ever find even a wee bit of happiness?

For fans of Downton Abbey, such questions will again be top of mind as the sixth and final season of the British melodrama premieres on North American TV screens tonight on PBS. (It will come to Canadian screens again on Vision TV on June 29.) 

In wrapping up its run, the lush period piece chronicling the trials and tribulations of the upstairs, aristocratic Crawleys and their downstairs staff will leave its own distinct mark on the international television landscape.

"Historical dramas are all the rage, and Downton Abbey put that on the front burner," says Bill Brioux, a longtime television columnist for Toronto newspapers.

Brioux puts part of that surge on the world we live in, with its crises here and turmoil there, and the endless electronic connections that surround us.

TV-Downton Abbey-Jim Carter

The downstairs courtship of Mr. Carson, left, played by Jim Carter, and Mrs. Hughes, played by Phyllis Logan, has been simmering slowly on Downton Abbey. (Nick Briggs/PBS/Carnival Film & Television Ltd for Masterpiece/Associated Press)

"I think people want to escape today," he says. "They long for a time when there were no cellphones or Facebook or internet, where people just communicated face to face."

What's more, television storytellers like the 1910s and 20s — Downton's era — for those very reasons, he suggests.

Add in the fact that today's high-tech special effects make it that much easier to build castles and create armies — without actually having to build castles or create armies.

"That's why I think shows like Vikings and Game of Thrones are very popular as well," Brioux says.

Kinder, gentler

Downton, of course, is no Game of Thrones, with its wedding massacres and the like, but the award-winning show's kinder, gentler ways helped it find favour with the kind of international audience its creators and actors never dreamed of.

One of the longer-running, gentler story lines was the courtship of Mr. Carson, the butler who had the eye of the head housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes.

"It was the slowest-burning romance of all times," says Jim Carter, the 67-year-old British actor who has put Carson's crustiness on full display. "But the audience seemed to want it to happen — as did we."

Other story lines weren't so gentle, but also captured the attention of fans who looked to the actors if they ever encountered them out of character for some further insight.

"You get recognized everywhere in the world," Brendan Coyle, who plays the valet Bates, said in an interview with CBC News.

Downton Abbey's Brendan Coyle talks fame with CBC 1:26

"I remember once I went to Marrakesh and was walking through the big market there and there were people from Australia, Sweden, Ireland, Iceland, somewhere else and they were chasing me through this market saying, 'Did you kill your wife? Did you kill your wife?' 

"This was after the third series. It was insane."

Some chatter around the show has suggested it somehow tapped into a cultural zeitgeist, particularly because of its anchor in the British class system, and the relationship between those who are better off and those who are less fortunate.

TV-Downton Returns

Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery, left, has a word with her maid Anna Bates Joanne Froggatt, in a scene from the fourth season of Downton Abbey. (PBS/Masterpiece, Nick Briggs/Associated Press)

"We could say it had something to do with the mortgage bubble in the U.S., and the haves and the have-nots, and the big one per cent thing," says Beverley Shenken, vice-president for TV content at Vision.

"But I think it's much deeper."

She looks instead to Downton's "great stories and characters and scenes and beautiful set design."

Among those characters are Lady Mary and Lady Edith, Crawley sisters whose emotional fortunes take wildly different paths.

"They each find meaning for their lives with what they're dealt and how they're treated in their family dynamic," says Shenken, who also notes that Downton's audience skews toward female viewers who may see a bit of themselves on screen.

"I think every woman can identify with different characteristics of each of those two quite different characters."

What next?

Looking ahead, there has been speculation about whether these characters will somehow find their way onto the big screen or into some other kind of spinoff.

"It's like when Sex and the City ended because it became a pop culture thing, too," says Shenken.

"Everyone said: 'Will there be movies, will there be a Broadway play?' and now the same thing, the same buzz is happening in the press. Will there be a prequel film and will there be a West End play in the U.K.?

"No one wants to completely let it go."

Still, there will have to be some letting go as Downton ends after six seasons, a modest length of time when compared with some North American television shows.

"If this was on Fox or NBC it would run for 30 years," says Brioux.

"They would milk it to death. They would drive it into the ground, beat it like a dog, every other cliché."

TV-Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey was praised for its set design and costumes portraying British life a century ago. (PBS/Masterpiece, Nick Briggs/Associated Press)

But that's not the way in Britain, where Downton has already wrapped up and where television series often don't last very long or have many episodes per season.

Some media speculation in the U.K. has also suggested that 81-year-old Maggie Smith, the Oscar-winning actor behind the worldly-wise Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, wasn't up for another season.

And perhaps for those who settle down on their couches tonight wondering about Lady Mary and Lady Edith, this final season will actually be enough.

"You don't want to outstay your welcome when you have something that is that huge," says Shenken.

"It's not like a sitcom ... it's not Friends. It requires much more commitment and involvement, and I think for us and the viewership, it had to do with 'OK, that's enough, what else have you got?'"

CBC Arts wants to hear your feedback

More On This Story

Starting soon: To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, for all new accounts, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted for existing community members in June.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.