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Why we’re hooked on 'Downton Abbey'

As PBS series is about to end its second season, it's become must-see — and discuss — viewing

Philadelphia Daily NewsFebruary 16, 2012 

  • ON TV

    'Masterpiece Classic: Downton Abbey'

    Two-hour season finale at 9 p.m. Feb. 19 on KET

Even before it clocked a (distant) second in the Nielsens on Super Bowl Sunday, I knew I wasn't exactly alone in my love for Downton Abbey.

Not at home, where my husband has recently gotten hooked, starting with Season 1 on Netflix.

Not at the office, where Downton mania has been spreading from cubicle to cubicle like the Spanish flu.

Not at the gym, where I recently heard a woman confess that her husband had downloaded what I suspect to be an illegal copy of Season 2 and that they'd essentially been mainlining it ever since.

And certainly not on Twitter, where even during the most-watched Grammy Awards since 1984, there were a surprising number of people discussing not Adele or Whitney Houston but Matthew and poor Lavinia.

Thanks to social media, I also know I wasn't the only person who stayed up later than she'd intended last week because Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary!) was on Late Show With David Letterman.

Maybe you still don't know Lady Mary from Lady Gaga. Maybe you've already succumbed to the lure of one of the season's least guilty pleasures, a potboiler set in Edwardian England.

If you're watching, you have your reasons. Here are some of the reasons I'm hooked:

Because it proves that romance isn't dead. And neither are soap operas. No matter what ABC tries to tell us. Who cares that the obstacles placed between its obviously meant-for-each-other lovers Lady Mary and Matthew (Dan Stevens) have grown increasingly unbelievable?

Or that downstairs, the possibly even more touching relationship between the housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and the valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) has undergone its own even more dire twists? As long as the Downton Abbey story doesn't become boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy (or girl)-gets-unexpectedly-eaten-by-polar bear, I'm there.

Because it's a period drama, not a period documentary. If it sometimes seems as if the Edwardians in Downton Abbey speak our language, it's because they often do, so much so that writer Ben Zimmer started tracking the anachronisms (with video) at Visualthesaurus.com.

Because no one does acid-tongued elder like two-time Oscar winner Maggie Smith, whose dowager countess, Violet Crawley, shrinks from no one. Naturally, she gets all the best lines — and, no, not just because the writers would be afraid to give them to anyone else. She earned them. I can't wait to see Smith go toe to toe next season with Shirley MacLaine, who'll play the mother of Violet's U.S.-born daughter-in-law, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern).

Because you always know who not to root for. I'm not saying the heroes are never conflicted or the villains never suffer pangs of conscience.

But there's something particularly soul- satisfying about disliking Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the footman whose first and last thought will always be of what's best for Thomas, and his partner in crime, lady's maid Sarah O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), whose scheming never ends.

Upstairs, middle sister Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) has been only a tad more sympathetic. It's never easy being the plainest sister, but she's so Jan Brady I almost expect her to scream, "Mary, Mary, Mary!" Though even Jan Brady wouldn't have written to the Turkish ambassador to try to ruin her sister Marcia's life.

Because it has turned PBS's Masterpiece into the Tony Bennett of prime time. It has been on longer than some Downton Abbey fans have been alive, and Masterpiece suddenly finds itself with actual buzz, not just awards.

Most Sunday nights, according to PBS, the Twitter hashtag #downton shows up in 20,000 to 30,000 tweets, and when the first season of Downton Abbey won the Golden Globe for best miniseries, Twitter itself reported that Downton-related comments averaged 6,162 tweets a second, a burst of social-media intensity that placed it ahead of the 2011 Super Bowl and last year's royal wedding.

When PBS posted the first 10 minutes of Season 2 on Facebook on Dec. 26, the footage tallied more than 100,000 views before the show's Jan. 8 premiere.

Masterpiece is doing everything it can to reach its viewers wherever they are.

Not content with Twitter and Facebook fame — or even with the 6.3 million viewers who watched that season premiere — Masterpiece is trying to be ubiquitous, whether it's in front of the TV set on a Sunday night or in front of a laptop at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday. It's hoping, of course, that some of those people will want to drop in from time to time after the Crawleys go on holiday. (Hint: Season 2 of the modern, and very sexy, Sherlock starts May 6.)

Younger fans aren't the only ones capable of watching online — or taking advantage of repeats during the week — so the result has been that Downton-come-lately viewers can catch up more easily than ever, whether it's watching the first season (now streaming on Netflix and available on iTunes and Amazon on DVD) or speeding through Season 2 at PBS.com or on PBS's free mobile apps. And for those who really can't wait for Sunday's finale, the entire season is available on DVD already.

Because Jane Austen gave us only six novels. Forget Tony Bennett: Austen, whose pop-culture renaissance has been going strong since at least the mid-1990s, when the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice and the Emma homage Clueless both hit big, is the Betty White of period romance.

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes is no Austen — when Austen gave a man with only daughters an accidental heir, he was a figure of fun, not romance — but the Gosford Park writer nevertheless knows his way around a costume drama.

And he boasts one tremendous advantage over his Regency rival: He's available for more storytelling.

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