Actors Michelle Dockery, left, and Dan Stevens from the TV series "Downton Abbey." (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, file)
"Downton Abbey," the British import that made it cool again to admit watching PBS, marked a milestone of sorts on Super Sunday when it placed second to the Super Bowl in the ratings (albeit by 106 million or so viewers). But the show reached a perhaps more significant benchmark the night before when "Saturday Night Live" lampooned the period drama, repackaging it as a guy-friendly show on Spike TV called "Fancy Entourage."
"There's a MILF and a dad, and they've got three daughters named 'Hot,' 'Way Hot' and 'The Other One,'" the announcer says. "And they all hang out with this old lady that looks like a chicken. We hated her at first, but then we got high and she made us crack up."
The bit, which oddly accurately summed up "Downton Abbey" and part of its appeal to both sexes, helped cement the show's place an unlikely pop culture mini-phenomenon. The humor and the show's growing popularity came during the season that "Downton Abbey," poised for a dramatic two-hour finale Sunday, got deadly serious.
If there's a theme to Season 2, it’s death – both literally and in the prolonged terminal illness of a way of life on a now post-World War I English estate where once the uneasy symbiotic "Upstairs Downstairs"-like relationship between the gentry and servants (or “a whole bunch of tuxedo people who live in the basement and their lives suck” in “SNL”-speak) has been irreparably cleaved by change.
Scenes of the war and the heartbreaking loss of the kind, if self-deluded, young servant William, offered powerful moments. But the joy at the end of the Great War has been tempered by new turmoil swirling at the Grantham estate. The manor was converted to a hospital for officers – one of whom fathered a servant’s baby, spurring a bitter, class-driven tug-of-war over the child. Sybil, the youngest daughter (aka "Way Hot"), revealed her plans to marry the socialist Irish chauffeur. Robert, lord of the manor (the “dad”) and the moral center of the show, found himself falling into the arms of a servant amid his growing confusion about his place in the world – not to mention the growing haughtiness of his American wife (the "MILF") who's beginning to act like his dowager mother (the "Chicken Lady").
Maggie Smith, as the aforementioned Chicken Lady, provides humor to the show, which has proven key as “Downton Abbey” has taken, at times, turns toward outright soap opera. A disfigured alleged amnesiac claimed to be the estate heir lost on Titanic. We’ve seen Matthew, the apparent true heir, return home from the war paralyzed, only to experience a miracle recovery. Not as fortunate was his selfless fiancée Lavinia, both the Sydney Carton and Melanie Wilkes of the show, who succumbed to the Spanish Influenza pandemic – and perhaps a broken heart, threatening to finally kill Matthew and Lady Mary's (aka "Hot") festering love. Then there's haunted manservant Bates and Anna, Lady Mary's maid, finally finding brief happiness in marriage just before he's arrested on suspicion of murdering his shrew of an estranged wife.
The appeal of the show, as the "SNL" spoof crudely suggests, rests greatly in the attractive young cast and the wonderful Smith. But the show’s draw also comes from strong writing – and from being both of its time and timeless. The class conflicts echo the split between the 99 Percent and the One Percent, and the complicated love story is a perennial that’s proven compelling from Jane Austen to Stephanie Meyer.
Thankfully, there’s no choice between “Downton Abbey” on PBS's "Masterpiece" and the Super Bowl this Sunday. Check out a preview of the Season 2 finale below:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.