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How ‘Downton Abbey’ has subtly changed the world

Michelle Dockery and Matthew Goode star in "Downton

Michelle Dockery and Matthew Goode star in "Downton Abbey," which ends its run on March 6. Credit: Carnival Film & Television / Nick Briggs

As great characters sometimes do, Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham — Dame Maggie Smith — seemed to speak for an entire world’s “Downton” obsession in the most recent episode two weeks ago.

Consoling Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), she said quietly, firmly and for once with no intention of completing a well-turned phrase with a well-turned zinger: “I believe in rules, and traditions and playing our part. But there is something else . . . ”

She paused, as if about to confide the secret of the universe or perhaps even a classic TV show, then added: “I believe in love.

Ah, love.

Makes the world go round, and prime-time soaps, too. Everybody believes in love, Lady Violet. But what’s love got to do with television anyway? Ending Sunday, what specifically has love got to do with “Downton Abbey”?

After a five-year, six-season run — by far the most successful in American public television history, and yielding one of the most popular series on the planet — it’s fair to say love has had everything to do with “Downton.” But reducing matters of the heart to a word, even that word, is never quite so easy.

“Downton’s” pull has been enigmatic, even counterintuitive. Its magic is subtle. The words — specifically those of creator Julian Fellowes — along with the actors saying them has gone a long way toward shaping the specific alchemy. The beauty and elegance of “Downton” has possibly completed it.

Nevertheless, British period dramas have never exactly scaled the heights on this side of the Atlantic. “Downton” was even essentially an “Upstairs, Downstairs” revival for a generation that never caught the Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins classic that aired on “Masterpiece” in the early ’70s. But “Upstairs” — an obsession in its own right — was seen by a few million each week. Ten million have reliably watched “Downton.”

So why “Downton”?

“Why, why, why,” said Rebecca Eaton, the longtime chief of “Masterpiece” who has done more to introduce — or indoctrinate — American audiences to British costume drama than anyone else in history. “We all have our answers,” she said in a recent interview. “Except that we don’t have the answer. If we did, we wouldn’t tell anybody else and just go out and get the same team and do it all over again.”

“Downton” arrived with impeccable credentials and pedigree. Fellowes, an established novelist, had already won an Oscar (best original screenplay) for “Gosford Park” a decade earlier. Directed by Robert Altman, “Gosford” in fact was an easily recognizable template for what he imagined here — except for the murder part, “Gosford’s” key plot point.

According to Gareth Neame, executive producer of “Downton” and Fellowes’ longtime “Downton” collaborator, Fellowes’ 2004 debut novel, “Snobs,” was an even more direct link to what “Downton” was to become — the to-the-manor-born aristocracy alongside their peculiar mating rituals. “I thought it a very witty and interesting comedy of manners and social observation,” Neame recalled in a recent interview. “He had never created a show, but I felt very confident he could.”

What came next he says he could not predict.

“It was an instant hit [in the U.K.] when the first season came out, and at the time I suppose I thought it was going to have to count on that quite small but perfectly formed Anglophile audience in the United States and other countries that tend to like British dramas,” Neame said. “The real surprise was that it was not just a popular show [in the U.S.] but had twice the audience we predicted.” Neame noted that the show was subsequently sold to 250 countries and territories — “everywhere it is possible to license a show” — and “may have more viewers in China than the entire population of Britain.”

Neame, like Eaton, admits that he has no answers “why,” but he does have theories. Among them: “The romance is key, and the way we have done numerous love stories. It’s romantic love, not sexual love, which is what all [the rest of] television is about. I’m not saying our characters don’t have sex lives, but it’s not something the story dwells on.”

That, he says, has attracted female viewers around the world who wanted precisely that.

Eaton says, “My personal theory is that this is about a community. There’s a scarcity of community in our lives, a little bit of a sense of maybe being let down by your community. [And] Julian, being who he is, filled this community [of ‘Downton’] with an enormous amount of goodwill, which is another thing you don’t see a lot of in the world of television.”

“Downton’s” spectacular success, of course, comes down to so much else — a brilliant cast, certainly, and perfectly formed characters, and a carefully crafted sense, carried across the seasons, that the world of Downton was both illusion and reality.

Neame says a future movie may one day sustain the glorious illusion — “all I can tell is that we are having conversations” — although he says the cast has been in demand, and gone on to other projects, including television, movies and the stage. Reassembling the large cast is almost certainly the largest challenge, along with securing Fellowes, who is developing a period drama (about the Gilded Age) for NBC.

And so after Sunday’s episode, all fans will be left with are memories — and mysteries of the heart that have guided this particular love affair.

As Violet — clearly also an astute TV critic — once long ago observed: “I’m not a romantic, but even I concede that the heart does not exist solely for the purpose to pump blood.”

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