A passion for "Downton Abbey" runs so deep that many die-hard fans greeted the new season as an excuse for viewing parties.
NEW YORK — To much of the civilized world, the “entail” sounds like some part of a cow that Mario Batali might serve alla Romana. But to aficionados of “Downton Abbey,” which recently began a second, highly anticipated season on PBS, it is “the great matter,” the root of all evil — and all delight.
The series was introduced last year to a U.S. audience of Anglophiles parched for a refreshment of costume-heavy British soap opera. (It’s been a long wait since the 1984 miniseries “The Jewel in the Crown,” and the recent sequel to “Upstairs, Downstairs” was widely deemed a bit bland.)
“All the DVD stores have been back-ordered for ‘The Forsyte Saga’ just to fill in the gap,” said Julie Alter, 54, a casting director who grits her teeth at any mention of the entail, “that absurd act of legal theft,” as the mistress of Downton calls it, which forbade English women from inheriting property and forms the series’ main plotline.
Indeed, passion for “Downton” runs so deep that many die-hard fans greeted the new season as a reason for viewing parties. At the Manhattan home of Kelvin Dinkins Jr., 24, a graduate student at Columbia, friends gathered last Sunday for finger sandwiches, properly made pots of tea and a drinking game: a slog of wine or beer every time the dowager countess (played by the scene-stealing Maggie Smith) delivers a withering one-liner. (Nearly falling out of a swivel chair and informed that it was invented by Thomas Jefferson, she snarled, “Why does every day involve a fight with an American?”)
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Kate Lewis, 39, an executive director of human resources at Condé Nast Publications, took some license with the time frame (1916) of the second season premiere to prepare an Edwardian feast. (King Edward VII died in 1910.)
“We thought of hiring a butler but decided we could wait on ourselves,” Lewis said. Guests enjoyed cream of parsnip soup, roast pork with chestnut glaze and sticky toffee pudding at her Brooklyn home. “But I don’t know if we can ever watch the show together again,” she said. “There was a huge debate about Mr. Bates. I love him, but my friends think he’s kind of a wimp.”
Christina Haag, 51, who wrote the book “Come to the Edge” about her relationship with John F. Kennedy Jr., brought a selection of British cheeses to the party held by her friend, the actress and singer Emily Bergl, 36, in Greenwich Village. “I eat red meat about twice a year, but ‘Downton’ has given me a craving for it,” Haag said, and Bergl obliged with steak and Guinness pie, a recipe from her Irish mother.
Dessert was Eton mess, a whipped-cream-and-berries homage to the prep school of Bergl’s English father, who grew up in a Downton-esque home, now owned by Rod Stewart. Bling was provided by napkin rings that resembled large diamonds, and Bergl burned a briquette of turf, which she poked in the fireplace, exclaiming, “Excuse me, lords and ladies, while I tend the fire.”
The last dinner served to first-class passengers on the Titanic inspired a party to be held this Sunday in Brooklyn, hosted by Liz Kingman, 31, the membership manager at the American Folk Art Museum. For dessert, Kingman plans to make the apple charlotte requested in one episode by a suitor of Lady Mary Crawley. “Fancy dress and hats will be strongly encouraged,” she said, “as will scheming and marrying for money.”
The concept of marriage based on dowry — a common custom between wealthy U.S. women and cash-poor British aristocracy at the turn of the century — grates on Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Cora. “Much of my challenge is not screaming about what she has to accept,” McGovern said by phone last week. “I find myself viscerally wound up a lot of the time, without realizing why. It’s because the lot of many women at that time was leading such idle, frustrating lives.”
Erin Curtis, 31, who provides information-technology support for an engineering company in Houston, is coiled up for a different reason: While visiting the family of her British boyfriend, she watched all of Season 2 in England.
“So I just have to shut up, biting my knuckles, and not give away what happens,” Curtis said. The lemon curd that one friend made for the scones at a viewing party last week tasted more like lemony scrambled eggs, she said, but pitchers of Pimm’s Cups helped. For the finale, a traditional liqueur called ratafia is steeping (basically fruit and spices soaked in brandy for a few weeks), and although declaring herself “not crafty,” Curtis is trying gamely to hand-paint teacups.
The eminently crafty Martha Stewart, 70, does not prepare special props or foods for watching “Downton,” but the show did engender a recent craving for cucumber sandwiches on white bread.
“I’d never seen Season 1 because it wasn’t on at a convenient time,” she said. “But then I got sick — I’m never sick — so I locked my door, uploaded the entire series onto my iPad and watched all seven hours. I was so depressed when it was over and I had to wait for the next season, but whatever flu-ish symptoms I had were gone.”
For Sarah O’Holla, 29, a librarian at the Village Community School in Manhattan, “my British obsession started last year when I woke up at 4 a.m. to watch the royal wedding,” she said.
A friend brought back a feathery fascinator headpiece, which she now wears for “Downton” viewing parties. The guests are other librarians and teachers who already had a tradition of reading Bronte novels together and formed what they called the Elegant Ladies’ Club (although the viewings now include one man). “We all have the same level of obsession about the show,” she said, “and we like any excuse to dress up.”
But the award for best costume might go to Patricia Morrison, 65, even though no one will see it. Morrison, the widow of the rocker Jim Morrison and author of a memoir called “Strange Days,” watches “Downton” alone in bed, wearing sweatpants and a tiara. “I happen to have two,” she said. “Who knew you could get tiaras on eBay? But I’m deeply disappointed that nobody on ‘Downton’ has worn one so far.”
She was also upset to learn that American audiences have missed some bits of the show broadcast only in Britain. “It’s edited here so that PBS can cram in Laura Linney to introduce it,” she said. “Lovely woman, lovely actress, but we don’t need her. More of ‘Downton,’ please.”