Ellen Gray: Why we're hooked on 'Downton Abbey'

Dan Stevens and Zoe Boyle portray an ill-fated couple.
Dan Stevens and Zoe Boyle portray an ill-fated couple.
Posted: February 15, 2012

MASTERPIECE CLASSIC: DOWNTON ABBEY. Two-hour season finale. 9 p.m. Sunday, WHYY 12.

EVEN BEFORE it clocked a (distant) second-place finish 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's recently gotten hooked, starting with Season 1 on Netflix.

Not at the Daily News, where "Downton" mania has been spreading from cubicle to cubicle like the Spanish flu, infecting young and not-so-young alike.

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 to a flash drive 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 that I wasn't the only person who stayed up later than she'd intended last week because Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary!) was a guest on CBS' "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. (And you are probably counting the minutes until Sunday's season finale.) 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 like 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 www.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. (Just as she did all those prizes for her roses. Whatever you may have heard otherwise.) I can't wait to see Smith go toe-to-toe next season with Shirley MacLaine, who'll play the mother of Violet's American-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 that the villains never suffer pangs of conscience.

But there's something particularly soul-satisfying about disliking Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the jumped-up footman whose first and last thought will always be of what's best for Thomas, and his partner in crime, ladies 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's turned PBS' "Masterpiece" into the Tony Bennett of prime time.

On longer than some "Downton Abbey" fans have been alive - it's older than "Saturday Night Live"! - "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 per second, a burst of social-media intensity that placed it ahead of the 2011 Super Bowl and last year's royal wedding.

(No telling how many of those tweets were from HBO employees noting that a show with multiple seasons isn't technically a "miniseries.")

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

* Because not content with Twitter and Facebook fame - or even with the 6.3 million viewers who watched that season premiere - "Masterpiece" is doing everything it can to reach its viewers wherever they are, 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' 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 still available for more storytelling.


Send email to graye@phillynews.com or join the live chat at noon tomorrow: www.philly.com/tvchat.

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