“It’s Approximately 500 Times More Fun to Watch Downton Abbey in a Crowd”: Exploring the Downton Abbey Phenomenon

January 30, 2015
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Downton AbbeyOn January 4, 2015, on a bitterly cold -4 degree evening in Minneapolis, I attended the fifth season premiere of Downton Abbey at a local second-run movie theater with 500 other brave and steadfast fans of the ITV/PBS television series. I was surprised at the excellent turnout, as I knew I was likely one of many attendees who were considering staying warm at home in lieu of braving the cold on this blustery night. I was even more surprised at the effectiveness of the organizer’s encouragement for attendees to don their best Downton-esque attire. Although probably nothing should surprise me anymore when it comes to Downton Abbey (and the related merchandising empire and fandom communities). Weeks earlier, I was floored to learn that a local Oratorio Society hosted a A Downton Abbey Christmas concert. Even though I’ve heard it a number of times, I still startle at the estimated worldwide viewership of Downton Abbey, said to be at 120 million people. At the same time, it no longer surprises me when the Downton Abbey merchandizing empire releases another product into the market – Downton Abbey wine, anyone? How about Downton Abbey tea? Soap? Furniture? The list goes on. Even so, watching as people took photos of themselves in period piece getups with cardboard cutouts of their favorite Downton Abbey character at the premiere event gave me pause, and an opportunity to reflect on my own relationship to Downton as both a viewer and a scholar.

As a queer television scholar, I first became interested in Downton Abbey because of the character of Thomas Barrow (played by Rob James-Collier). The show’s treatment of his sexuality became particularly interesting to me in the third season, when he is outed as gay but not banished from the Downton estate. I started wondering through what lens is this character informed? My own research places Thomas, as well as a cluster of queer characters that have emerged on contemporary television set in the historical past, as informed by post-gay ideology. I also have argued that the insertion of gay themes in television programming set in the historical past is a strategy used by showrunners and industry insiders to capitalize on the interests of contemporary “savvy” viewers. I’m also interested in how the Downton Abbey merchandising empire is spared the fate of being equated with “crass commercialism.” Similarly, Downton is rarely compared to the less prestigious television “soap” format (with which it shares much in common). I argue that the show’s appeal to upper class taste aesthetics as well as its role as a form of gay consumer culture has significant impact on its prestige. That said, Thomas has become a fascinating character if not for anything other than the way internet-based fan communities have united to recuperate him from his reputation as conniving evil-doer.

TPT RewireSponsored by local public television network Twin Cities Public Television (TPT), the series premiere event was also the launch of TPT’s Rewire, “TPT’s spunky new project that loves the internet (and PBS) as much as you do.” During the screening, attendees were invited to participate in the “second screen” experience of Twitter fandom with the “MustTalkTV” hashtag. Although the TPT/Rewire premiere event was straightforwardly celebratory in one sense (of the aristocracy, of the show’s conservative leanings), the attendee’s enthusiastic dual-participation (both on-site and virtual) complexly registered as earnest, campy and ironic. That TPT/Rewire’s rebranding efforts hinged on the uniquely popular Downton Abbey, a culturally elite British import, speaks to the shifting definitions of “popular” and “elite” in today’s post-network television era.

Before the screening of Downton Abbey, a representative of TPT announced Rewire’s new initiative to host monthly television-centered “book clubs.” The event, “Must Talk TV: A Book Club for Binge Watchers,” promotes itself as akin to a previous event series “Books and Bars,” where attendees presumably gathered to discuss books over a couple of beers. But this new event, Rewire assures us, does not require “all that pesky reading.” On the event website the host prompts potential attendees with a suggestion, “Let’s treat these modern day TV dramas like the high art and literature they’ve aspired to be.”

Must Talk TVAlong with my dissertation advisor and a handful of my colleagues, I attended the inaugural event of the “Must Talk TV” event series focusing on Downton Abbey – future events will feature House of Cards, The Bletchley Circle, Game of Thrones and Mad Men. The event was moderated by a host, who prompted the room with a series of fast-paced questions that had to do with identifying one’s favorite character, recounting why one started watching the show, or concerned with the details about one’s personal viewing practices. I found that it was a difficult conversation to participate in, mostly because I am ambivalent about my role as a Downton Abbey fan. Sure, I love and appreciate Maggie Smith and her one-liners, have a fondness for Daisy and Mrs. Padmore, cried when they killed off Sybil… but mostly I watch with a certain amount of apprehensive distance. My hope is that by tuning in week to week I might better understand Downton Abbey as a cultural phenomenon.

TPT/Rewire’s “book club” event seems to be an attempt to cultivate a particular kind of fan and/or a particular kind of community around television fandom. The kind of fan or fan community where “binge-watching” is elevated to levels of prestige and participants do not have to bother with “all that pesky reading.” As such, the rebranding of TPT/Rewire reveals much about the way public television is implicated amidst shifting questions of quality, worth, taste, class and legitimacy.


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