Downton Abbey devotees were graced with the much-awaited first episode of season four Sunday evening. In the days following, many have found themselves confronting a forgotten quandary: how to cope with traditional week-to-week television scheduling.
Some pose this issue as a generational problem. Collegiate summer and winter breaks were practically designed for post-season television binges, and broke millennials approaching thirty continue to resist committing to cable in favor of buying and re-watching favorite shows on iTunes or DVD. Yet statistics show that older generations also actively participate in the new viewing reality—that is, the television binge—and show no signs of letting up.
Americans no longer have the time and patience for advertisements or the week-long waiting period traditionally given between episodes and, quite frankly, are the better for it. Why engage advertising when binge watching offers the opportunity to opt out with the added benefit of a mere fifteen seconds between episodes?
For Downton, that’s why.
Occasionally a show comes along that’s worth the struggle. Worth the repetitive droning of prescription drug advertisements intermittently broken up by superbly photo-shopped images of processed foodstuffs. We cope with the television-watching experience of yore because we can’t cope without the show. It’s classic U2 material, and a real life challenge in many American living rooms.
How are Americans, a population of individuals culturally groomed to expect and revel in instant gratification, supposed to wait patiently an entire week before the next viewing of our favorite buttoned-up British television drama? Painfully, it seems. But wait we must, and so the real issue becomes how to do so pleasantly.
Quite fortunately, for Downton fans a true reprieve from television madness exists in the form of two lovely volumes. The 8th Countess of Carnarvon, who presently resides in the house we know as Downton, has researched and written two books about the history of her home, Highclere Castle: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey. The Countess compiled these works of nonfiction using the castle’s extensive archives. Each book focuses its attention exclusively on one of the seven former countesses: Lady Almina in the first and her immediate predecessor, an American called Lady Catherine, in the second. Both represent quite clearly the wealth of historical information that Highclere’s history afforded the 8th Countess of Carnarvon; the books are surprisingly rich with the drama, intrigue, and rebellion against outdated social norms that make for great television. The scope and intrigue of the real dramas lived out between the walls of Highclere Castle serves to underscore the Countess’ decision to get these stories down in writing. She has done well; the first book made the New York Times bestseller list in 2011. Perhaps the Countess’ true accomplishment, though, is that she was able to compile and record these fascinating histories while keeping both books light, entertaining, and easy to read; the perfect way to pass a few evenings while waiting for the next episode.
With the absence of so many favorite (and most-despised) characters, the first episode of Season 4 bore the challenge of wrapping up many old story lines while engaging viewers with the promise of new intrigue. Many of us who claimed never to watch another episode in light of Season 3’s shocking ending again found ourselves situated in front of the tube; time heals all wounds. Despite such abrupt and abrasive changes, Season 4 debuted with just as much magic as the previous seasons. Now there is something to look forward to next week.