Here are some reasons for the appeal of smash hit miniseries Downton Abbey.
People like beautiful things.
Beautiful costumes, beautiful buildings, beautiful people. And I don't mean 'beautiful people' as in the People magazine version. Sure, Matthew Crawley and Lady Sybil might make the cut for world's most beautiful people. But many of the other characters in Downton Abbey are beautiful in a different way, like Lady Mary. She's not exactly a pinup girl: there's something quirky about her looks. But she's beautiful because the unconventionalities of her face make her interesting, absorbing to watch. And there are many other sumptuous beauties in the series: jewelry, the red velvet of a dress, the austere, perfect place settings of a dinner table.
People like to root for good guys and against bad guys...and then sometimes find out the bad guy was actually good, or vice versa.
Downton has more than its share of alluring villains: but unlike a typical soap opera, the story is so well-written and well-acted that the villainy seems quite real, surprising in its cruelty but understated in all the right ways. What happens is outrageous: the way it's told and acted is elegant and multidimensional.
But people also like to see family conflicts in which it's difficult to tell which sister/mother/in-law is in the right.
In the sisterly triangle between Mary, Sybil, and Edith in Season 1, none of the sisters is exactly evil, but each has a pretty wicked moment. We can all relate to family conflicts in which each relative would try to claim the high ground, but none would really deserve it.
People miss rules, restraint, and subtlety.
The problem with our let-it-all-hang-out culture is that when there are no rules, we can't have the thrill--or dread--of seeing rules broken and the consequences. So in order to have a constant tension between restraint and freedom, we have to step back in time, to when it actually mattered if a servant spoke out of turn, or if a lady behaved dishonorably.
People are starved for the pleasure of a quality historical saga embellished with the beauties of its time, because so few have appeared in film in recent years. The miniseries is the perfect medium to satisfy this hunger, because it does what only novels can do otherwise: tell a long, rich, multi-layered story unlimited by the rigorous rules of a feature film.
Are you watching Downton Abbey? What makes it appeal to you...or not?