I’ve been angling for a reason to write about Downton Abbey on this blog, and an opportunity presented itself in this fun Friday post that went up today on the PreservationNation.org blog. You can read the post with the awesome-as-usual Downton Abbey images here but I’ve also included the text below.
PS: I also use it as an excuse to mention other awesome shows like The West Wing, LOST, Dr. Who, and Battlestar Galactica. Because what would each of these shows be without the familiar hallways of the White House, the forests of our favorite Island, and a spaceship serving as home for a drifting civilization (or in the case of Dr. Who, the ability to hop from place to place in time)?
Downton Abbey and the Pull of Place in Popular Television
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.
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.
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.
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 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!