In the many, many days since Mad Men last aired, a new star has risen in the quality-television constellation: PBS’s Downton Abbey. The series, depicting love and class struggle in 1910s Britain, was first broadcast on this side of the Atlantic in January 2011 under the Masterpiece imprimatur, but has grown far beyond your typical Masterpiece audience. The second “series” (British for “season,” don’t you know) premiere this month doubled PBS’s average ratings and drew more viewers than last season of–yup–Mad Men.
PBS credits social media in part for boosting the show’s–and the broadcast service’s–profile. But a simple search for “downton abbey viewing party” reveals that much of the social activity around the show is happening in person. Sarah O’Holla, the proprietor of a lifestyle blog called Desirous of Everything and a school librarian, has been documenting the Downton Abbey parties at which she serves fish and roast game as well as the acquired-taste British cocktail Pimm’s cup. Fires are lit in the fireplace of a Fort Greene brownstone for that verite feel. Guests come dressed in vintage garb, with one woman donning a faux mustache to resemble Branson, “the Irish cab driver.”
“I love TV drama–Friday Night Lights, Parenthood,” said Ms. O’Holla, citing two well-loved and little-watched NBC dramas. “It’s like, take away the costumes and the beautiful surroundings and it’s actually a soap opera, with so many gasping moments. We yell at the screen, we hate Thomas, and we love the Countess.”
Ms. O’Holla hosts a handpicked circle of friends, some of whom had been in her “elegant ladies club” devoted to Edwardian and Victorian culture and some of whom just like quality TV. “The party is exclusively for true fans. We don’t want it to get too big. This week we have seven people, and we’re all true fans. It’s like I said, it does revolve around watching a show together.”
“We all realized that we love this show, we should watch it together,” said Ms. O’Holla, who says she is “spreading the Downton gospel through her blog and by introducing new friends to the show. “I would totally do it for other shows. I feel like when you turn TV into a social activity you get the most out of it.” Still, she said, after a recent viewing party, she found she’d missed so much of the show while discussing it live that she had to watch it again, later, on PBS’s website, where it’s made available for fans.
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