Our Deep Twisted Relationship With TV: Why I Can't Quit 'Downton Abbey'

BlogHer Original Post

More than a week after the Downton finale, I’m still thinking about what went wrong. I happened upon both major plot twists via spoilers, and yet, they were awful just the same. Awful because they were tragic and because they had me wondering if the writing is losing me. All the same, it seems it will be an eternity until the next season begins. Like Losties to the Island, Downton, I can’t quit you.


Image courtesy of PBS

Oh, the spoilers. It all began so innocently. I couldn’t remember a detail from Season One and googled it. The search results included headlines that left no surprises about the fate of Lady Sybil. Weeks later an article, about a book optioned for a TV series, revealed the great big terrible no good very bad thing that happens in the final moments of the season finale.

Spoiler rage is an emotion all its own. A bit reminiscent of that nausea and radiating pain when you hit your head getting out of a car. But neither spoiler was a spoiler exactly. They were both from British sites. Downton ended there months ago. What I read was common knowledge if you live across the Atlantic. Can we get some kind of browser add-on to stop this sort of thing from happening?

I’m beginning to fear social media spoilers more fatal to film and TV than video was to the radio star. Forget piracy, worry about Twitter.

What bothered me more than the spoilers was what they revealed in terms of where the show was going. The actors don't need to justfy leaving. They completed their contracts. It's the writing that I'm not so sure about. Forgive me for sounding like one of my college professors, but end of contract as motivation for the death of two main characters? Really? 

By the way, Dan Stevens is like the British James Franco - a judge for the Booker Prize with a pocket for his Kindle sewn into his costumes to keep up with all the reading. Post-Downton he headed to Broadway. Now editing a lit journal. End tangent. Back to DA.

Birth met with the loss of a parent is tragedy doubled, and we saw the ripple effect upstairs and down somewhat briefly after Lady Sybil died. I actually thought the weeks after her death gave some new depth to characters, but those wrinkles were quickly ironed out like one of Lord Grantham’s dinner shirts, which is kind of the show’s thing. But they went and did it again. Meet the parents, er, parent.

Maybe I expected more because I feel like British television has a habit of going out on top. Actors don't leave shows, the shows leave the actors. It’s not Bonanza.

And now I think I face the LOST conundrum. After Season Four, when things it seemed that the Smoke Monster was making everyone high, I couldn’t stop watching, but no longer for the same reasons. I needed to know what happened to Jack and Kate and Claire’s baby because I’d spent years waiting for the pieces of the puzzle come together. I was invested. And now I’m feeling that way about Tom and Mary and Matthew’s baby. (Are Matthew and Mary the new Charlie and Claire?)

I can’t stop watching. Like Cora and Matthew, I’m invested in the estate.

And yet, whatever I am critical of, the fact I am critical of it to begin with, is something that makes me happy. I’m excited when there’s a show that I don’t set and forget. I want to watch it as soon as possible, because I love it even when I hate it. (OK, I DVR it, but only in case of emergency.)

DVRs and TV on Demand aren’t bad, but they remove that collective experience that was TV until just a few years ago. Shows like Downton bring us back to that. Here on the west coast, eyes are averted from Twitter once Downton hits the Atlantic seaboard. Since most of my friends and family watch it too, no one calls or texts or emails from 9-10 on Sunday nights. It’s an unwritten rule. It’s LOST deja vu.

When LOST began Facebook was social media, and each week it became a ghost town the moment the show began, then a virtual water cooler as end credits rolled. So goes with Downton. I’ve seen this happen with other shows, but it remains the exception rather than the rule. Like Gollum’s precious. (Ever seen Gollum get cranky? THAT is spoiler rage.)

Unlike any other must see TV, Downton is uniquely precious. It’s bringing more viewers and funding to public television. Last year, PBS reported:

Downton Abbey, Season 2... consistently drew an audience more than double the PBS primetime average... female viewers 18-34 were up 251 percent and women 35-49 were up 145 percent. Male viewership in 18-34 and 35-49 has also increased 111 and 84 percent, respectively. The teen audience has grown 88 percent.”

In a press release this month, PBS shared that “the average audience for Season 3’s first five episodes is 72% above the first five episodes of Season 2.”

So, when Mitt Romney made mention in the presidential debates about cuts to PBS, funding that helps keep public TV affiliates in underserved areas alive, he got the attention of those who grew up on Sesame Street and were now hanging out at Downton. Basically, the largest PBS viewership ever.

When people are watching public television, paid programming takes notice. The awards and the ratings - they want what PBS is having. Of course, it means everyone wants to find “the next Downton.” As a big fan of Victorian and between the wars fiction, I’m more than happy to see what comes next.

Starting this week with HBO’s miniseries Parade’s End, adapted by Tom Stoppard and directed by Susanna White. And starring Masterpiece alum Benedict Cumberbatch. Only connect...

Same era, same class issues, but it’s HBO, so expect the sex to be sexier and the battles scenes more gruesome. And with Stoppard, perhaps more drama than melodrama. We’ll see.

But be warned, the series aired in the UK late last year. Don’t. Google. Anything.

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