Something rather remarkable is about to happen tonight. Across the US, millions of Americans will go from watching a rib-crunching NFL playoff matchup to a highly mannered, early 20th-century soap opera following the fortunes of a fictitious family of English aristocrats and the gaggle of servants tethered to it.
There have been any number of attempts to explain the surprise success of Downton Abbey, the Emmy-award winning costume drama from the UK commercial network ITV, which will have the stateside premiere of its fifth season tonight as part of the PBS series Masterpiece.
Clearly most of the show’s appeal stems from silly escapism peppered with America’s longstanding Anglophile streak. The costumes are lovely. The accents are plummy. The architecture is sumptuous. Downton Abbey is Harry Potter for grown-ups.
But it’s quite a coincidence that a show centered on the minutiae of the sclerotic, class-ridden society that was early 20th century Britain should so capture American imaginations right now. That’s because, in economic terms, the United States of 2015 looks very much like Lord Grantham’s Britain—except without as many tuxedos.
Anyone who’s kept tabs on 2014’s Thomas Piketty mania is familiar with the story. Inequality in both the US and UK was quite high at the dawn of the 20th century. Then it collapsed sharply due to a series of catastrophes—World War I, the Great Depression, World War II—that destroyed property and resulted in tax and inflation rates which eroded the wealth of the upper classes.
But since the early 1980s, levels of inequality have shot up sharply in the US and UK. In fact, in 2012 Americans whose incomes were in the top 1% claimed more than 19% of all the income in the country. That’s almost exactly the same ratio captured by the top 1% of British families in the aftermath of World War I, the era when much of the action at Downton occurs.
That’s not to say that Americans watch Downton Abbey because they see a mirror of the modern-day US. It’s exactly the opposite. They watch precisely because they have zero idea what the difference is between a footman and an butler.
But, it’s important to remember that the 20th century didn’t just change the levels of inequality. It also fundamentally changed the structure of wealth in the English-speaking world. For example, during Downton Abbey’s heyday, the haves and have-nots were largely sorted out at birth and death, through inheritance. Lord Grantham was born to be Lord Grantham. Servants were born to be servants.
That has changed in recent decades. The lion’s share of recent increases in inequality, according to Piketty, are due to the growth of outsized pay packets of corporate executives. That sounds more meritocratic. (Although it’s very difficult to prove that any CEO is actually worth his or her pay.) But for the middle class and lower classes, the surge in corporate super-salaries has been pretty much a bad deal, suggesting that the share of income going to workers has been shrinking. That’s part of the reason why US household incomes are essentially where they were a quarter century ago.
Moreover, it’s those very same corporate executives who often act as the enforcers of the relentless financial logic of cost-cutting, off-shoring, and outsourcing that so concern many in the middle ranks of the economy.
That’s an important point to keep in mind as we consider the appeal of the gang at Downton. Over and over, the series emphasizes the duty felt by members of nobility to provide jobs. For instance in season one, when Matthew Crawley—a middle-class professional from Manchester who stands to inherit the estate—suggests letting an un-needed butler go, Lord Grantham replies: “Is that quite fair? To deprive a man of his livelihood when he has done nothing wrong?”
In a separate exchange during the second season the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, states simply “It’s our job to provide employment.” Some have argued that these bits of tacked-on noblesse oblige are necessary if we’re to willingly ignore the the economic injustice that’s at the heart of the show. And that’s probably right.
But in an era when solid, middle-income employment seems ever more at risk, it’s no wonder that such paternalistic patter can sound soothing. We can all use a bit of fantasy on a Sunday night before the workweek starts again.