Downton Abbey mirrors upheavals plaguing modern world

Modern society is experiencing a social hurricane driven by forces not dissimilar to those at work in the early 20th century


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EDMONTON, Alta. March 7, 2016/ Troy Media/ – How could Downton Abbey be so popular? The season six grand finale, which aired on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre recently, closed the final chapter of the TV program’s remarkable run.

This starchy Edwardian soap opera has appeal in North America that is nothing short of amazing. Downton has millions of loyal followers. Its audience peaked for season four’s finale at 15.3 million viewers. Incredibly, it accomplished this feat while competing head to head with the Olympics.

And so, after six seasons of crisp upper-crust spectacle, this program will go into the books as one of the most popular dramas in television history.

The show opened with a bang – the aristocratic Crawley family tragically losing their heir apparent on the Titanic. This threw the family into convulsions, as the succession for the title and the grand house wore on. The storyline, which spanned more than a decade, began in the quiet pre-First World War period. It managed to enthrall audiences with subdued drama over one of the most turbulent periods in history.

Naturally, the plot had its share of twists and turns, with plenty of love interests, sibling rivalries and iconic characters. But the back-story was also compelling, rooted in societal transformation. As the story unfolded, upstairs and downstairs characters dealt with the terrors of the Great War, the introduction of new technology and the social revolution that swept through Britain’s class structure in the Roaring Twenties.

Downton was stunning visually and captured the essence of the period masterfully. But its real appeal was its ability to model values and standards of civilized behaviour for us all, as we too experience a social hurricane driven by forces not dissimilar to those at work in the early 20th century.

So, what’s changing today? Like the massive changes of the Edwardian Era, the answer to that is … almost everything. We are at long last fully entering the post-industrial era.

Changes on this scale begin in the economy. These days, it’s not traditional factories and machines that drive national economies. Today, ideas, network applications, software and other forms of creative assets transcend all boundaries. What we see around us is a world of technology; it has galloped into our lives aided by mobile communication devices, the Internet and exponential growth in the performance, speed and power of computers.

The Industrial Revolution is important because, although it happened a long time ago, it’s the closest thing we in the West have to the kinds of economic forces impacting the world today. However, the creation of industrial society is so distant that we’ve forgotten what a social hurricane it unleashed.

But look around and you’ll see boundaries of all sorts falling and the rules of the game changing. Who could imagine Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders a decade ago? So just when we needed a refresher course on social transformation, enter Downton Abbey, stage right.

How did Downton pull it off? It cleverly employed an old theatrical device. It was quite common in the 18th century for operas to place their story lines and characters in other countries or in the past to remove any potential criticism of the author when his characters challenged the powers that be. It was a safe way to deal with dangerous subjects. After all, the setting was so long ago and far away, who could get too upset?

Downton provides a relatable message: as in the lives of many viewers, the Crawleys saw economic and political changes that threatened established privileges.

That’s not very far from what’s happening to the traditional elites of the Western world today. We smile at the Dowager (Maggie Smith) and the butler Carson as they grapple with changing social norms. Why? They’re modelling circumstances and behaviours for modern audiences who are grappling with their own social revolutions. Today it’s not overly ambitious footmen or votes for women, but it is similarly serious issues like galloping inequality, and the rights of formally unseen and under-represented groups in society like immigrants and the LGBT community.

We learn two important lessons from Downton that comfort us in these turbulent times: one, there is a civilized way to deal with change; and two, it’s going to be all right. All these changes may seem like chaos at the moment but there is a greater logic to it all – and the world is slowly getting better.

Troy Media columnist Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and co-founder of the Genuine Wealth Institute, an Alberta-based think tank dedicated to helping businesses, communities and nations build communities of wellbeing. Robert is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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