Get Thee to the Abbey

Back in 2001 when the M.I.T. Media Lab unveiled a demo about social media and TV, it presaged greater things to come. At the bottom of the TV screen, viewers’ live comments appeared for all to see, demonstrating the potential of instant feedback shareable by everyone. My eyes opened wide as I experienced the idea of social media at a time when tweets were still for the birds and Facebook wouldn’t launch for another three years.

You can be sure that when the final season of Downton Abbey begins its run on PBS on January 3, social media will be out in force. What the Media Lab didn’t know 15 years ago was that second screens—wireless handheld phones and tablets—would preclude the need for stealing TV screen real estate for chatting. Communicating with fellow fans feels so much cozier on a screen held close while curled up on the couch in front of the big TV.

The second screen is also being deployed to help viewers keep track of the enormous cast. With 15 characters deceased by the end of Season 5 (be it by suffering a heart attack while engaged in sex or going down on the Titanic ), we’ve seen more crucial characters killed off in Downton Abbey than in 11 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. Considering that we’re now about to begin the sixth season of a weekly series that each year runs its course by the spring thaw, a memory-jogging tool is essential. Enter the apps.

Several encyclopedic and quote-filled apps are available for purchase for your iOS or Android device. But keep your money. I’ve found that the free apps are more comprehensive and up to date. Also, using a search engine in your browser can pretty much get you answers to everything you need. YouTube alone is a treasure-trove of both video clips and some complete episodes.

I recommend the Wikia Fan App for Downton Abbey, which describes itself as “created by fans, for fans.” Sure enough, the app leaves little out. Curious about Tom Branson’s back story or why Bates uses a cane? You’ll find the information here.

The app even came in handy while watching The Good Wife, in which the face of one of the CBS drama’s regulars looked familiar. After scrolling through 194 head shots of Downton Abbey characters, I finally found a match at the 194th picture tile captioned “Henry Talbot.” So I dove deeper to learn that the character had caught the eye of Lady Mary at the manor’s 1924 Christmas party. Played by the English actor, Matthew Goode, would Talbot be returning in Season 6 to win Mary’s heart? I didn’t want to know—not yet.

As I write this column, Downton’s final season has already begun to air in Great Britain, which is just milliseconds away by fiber. Spoilers haven’t been this big a threat to the Colonies since limes rotted on tall ships. A colleague admitted to me that he always watches the show when the Brits see it thanks to a friend of his wife’s who lives in England. Mum’s the word, he promised. I’m holding my breath. When it comes to the manners of Americans watching Downton Abbey , both unscrupulous streaming and pirated discs should be avoided. I’d rather laugh or cry in sync with my own countrymen than get an advance screening. After all, what fun is social media if we can’t be surprised together?

As Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), remarked: “First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel.”