American audiences were shocked this weekend when the popular British period drama Downton Abbey – one of the most popular television programs in history – killed off one of its lead characters. Lady Sybil Crawley, played by 23-year-old British hottie Jessica Brown Findlay, died shortly after giving birth to a healthy baby girl in the fifth episode of the show’s third season – which premiered on U.S. television Sunday evening.
Sybil is one of three fictitious daughters of the Earl of Grantham, who resides with his fictitious family (and their army of fictitious servants) at Downtown Abbey – a.k.a. the Jacobethan English country home Highclere Castle.
Downton Abbey has become a sensation in both Old and New Worlds. The show’s third season premiere drew 7.9 million viewers – up from the 5.4 million who watched its second season finale (and the 4.2 million who watched its second season premiere).
Sybil’s untimely passing not only prompted a flood of lady tears across the country, it has forced our founding editor to dramatically rethink his “FMK Downton Abbey daughters” game. In fact with only two daughters, the game is up.
Sybil’s death was no big secret. This particular episode aired on British television last October (where it was watched by 9.5 million people).
Still, American audiences were stunned when the show’s writer/ creator, Jullian Fellowes, “offed” Sybil. Not only that, he did it violently – morbidly depicting Sybil’s demise from post-partem eclampsia exactly as it would have happened, complete with writhing, hemorrhaging, swelling and the obligatory last gasps.
No implied cutaway here …
Meanwhile social media exploded with grief and surprise at Sybil’s untimely passing (as it did several months ago on the other side of the pond) … prompting a flood of indignation from people who had set their DVR’s to record the program.
Why all the fuss over a TV show?
Well, in an era of record-short attention spans Downton Abbey is one of the few programs still capable of breaking through the synaptic clutter and transporting viewers to another era – capitalizing on their nostalgic as well as their material impulses. And trust us, once you’re there – you’re invested.
Incidentally, while Lady Sybil was meeting her maker Downton won the Screen Actors’ Guild award for ensemble cast in a drama – beating out last year’s winner Boardwalk Empire as well as Homeland and Mad Men.