Last Sunday, I joined millions of Americans in enjoying a highly ritualized television event that pitted team against team in a complicated quest for glory and riches.
That’s “Downton Abbey,” of course. What, was something else happening on TV last Sunday?
The two teams were all suited up for the rough-and-tumble in their obligatory uniforms and padding. On this end, you had ties and tails, pearls and floor-length gowns, flowery hats and riding crops. On that end gray dresses and white aprons, smart suits and work boots, soup ladles and silver polish.
The contest was both predictable and thrilling. When that art lover and/or cad Simon Bricker made a run into Lady Cora’s end zone — only to be blocked by Cora herself and then brutally sacked by Lord Grantham, appearing out of nowhere — you should have witnessed the cries of rising suspense, the explosion of excitement, the splattered spinach dip all over the living room.
There was also quiet confusion and humble requests of, “Wait, what? Who? Why?” from spectators who came late to the game and don’t grasp the complexities. This is season five of the glittering British soap opera, after all, with numerous personal story lines and cultural winds twisting and tangling for what are supposed to have been decades already. If you weren’t a follower all along, a lot of explanation was required.
And good luck getting diehard fans like me to break our concentration — our focus on every little nuance of, say, Maggie Smith’s wicked grin — to start spinning shaggy back stories. You had to pick it up as you went along. No opportunities for quick reviews during commercials.
A few hours earlier, millions of Americans reportedly enjoyed a different but similarly ritualized television event, where two teams suit up in order to crash together on a field of play. Before buzzing over to my parents’ house to catch British aristocracy at play, I did spend a few hours in a friend’s crowded living room, watching American aristocracy do its thing.
And my role was reversed. Not having grown up with football — and having this funny sense that maybe the forceful and frequently brain-first collisions of these behemoths isn’t exactly a healthy and positive activity, neither for bodies nor for minds — I watched the game the way a foreigner might. That means suspending the health concerns and going with the flow. It means appreciating the spectacle in the room more than the spectacle on screen.
Heck, I was sitting down with a little paper plate in my lap, starting to say hello to a friend, when the room erupted in shouts and screams. In the half-second it took me to look, whatever marvel had occurred was over. “Wait, what?”
A moment later my daughter, off at a different Superbowl party, texted me: “Dang. I do not understand this.”
Earlier in the day, I caught some witty commentator comparing non-football-fandom on Super Bowl Sunday with being Jewish at Christmastime. There’s only one meaning to this day, if you’re at all plugged into mainstream American culture, and the only real option for the minority is observing the majority’s quasi-religious ritual from the sidelines.
(A few weeks ago, I attended a Sunday morning lecture by Arun Gandhi, grandson of the legendary Indian peacemaker, at a Hazel Dell church; both the pastor who introduced Gandhi and the speaker himself noted that the serious issue uppermost on everybody’s mind was … that afternoon’s Seahawks game, of course.)
In the end, though, it was impossible not to catch a mild case of the fever. I can’t claim to have followed it all — chitchat over by the crackers and salmon spread was more absorbing, generally — but the stunning catch by a player in mid-tumble and the unexpected interception of a pass with moments to go made for some pretty exciting spectating. Unlike the key moments in “Downton Abbey,” these turning points were impossible to miss — because they were replayed again and again. And again and again. And. …
Fortunately, there were loads of commercials. I’m told you’re supposed to pay rapt attention to those, but there’s no law about that yet.
Superb Owl Day
I truly enjoy my buddy’s annual Super Bowl party. The spirited company is fun. Football is the least of it, at least for me.
Same goes for my relatives who are halfway interested in “Downton Abbey.” The point isn’t, will Bates land back in prison? Will Lady Mary ever find true bliss? The point is a little Sunday night togetherness. No explanation required, really. But if you do need some, figure it’ll be pregame or postgame, not during. There’s a law about that, pretty sure.
Facebook chatter from the likes of my nerdier friends and acquaintances on Sunday:
“I hope they both lose. Happy Superb Owl Day!”
“Am I a real American if I don’t like football? This becomes a question every year at this time. Dare I ask whether anyone else will NOT be watching today?”
“I hate TV sports; when I was a kid they were too much of a rival for my dad’s attention.”
“I’ve been getting so excited and I’m not even sure what’s going on most of the time.”
“I don’t even like football, but that was cool.”
“`Downton Abbey’ was great tonight! Not a single deflated ball.”