Just pick Mitt already! (Nick Briggs/ITV for MASTERPIECE)

“But this has class struggles!”

“Yes,” I said.

“And there’s a Venerable Elder who keeps unleashing cutting remarks.”


“And a lot of talking but not much doing.”

“I am almost positive that I do not need to watch this,” I said. “I have those bases covered.”

But then I pressed my luck. “Besides, I sneered, it seems mainly of interest to the 1 percent.”

My interlocutor cleared her throat significantly.

“Fair,” I said. “But why on earth does it take dozens of episodes for them to make a fairly obvious choice of someone whose name starts with M.”

She cleared her throat again.

“All right,” I said. “But — look, I can’t watch PBS, okay? People keep asking Bert and Ernie to marry and it makes me nervous.”

“There are only 15 episodes,” she said.

It was impossible to argue with that.

And the more I watched of “Downton,” the more it struck me that I might be on to something.

If the metaphor of Republican Debates as Reality Television Series were a dead horse, it would have been beaten miles below the earth by now.

The last Fox debate before Monday’s in South Carolina had more than 7 million viewers. That’s impressive, for a show that consists most of middle-aged people in suits saying vague things about foreign policy. But it’s not overwhelming. Consider: 4.2 million tuned into the premiere of “Downton Abbey.”

In October, a majority of Americans were unable to name the Republican candidates for president. And that was after seven debates.

Maybe a better metaphor is in order. It’s not a reality show. People watch those — or they cancel them. It’s a serial drama, with all the impassioned opinions about a small cast of characters that that entails. National pursuit? Maybe. It’s more of a cult classic.

It’s all a question of audience. And what a peculiar audience it is. The rooms where the debates are held might be full of Actual Voters Making Up Their Minds. The candidates seemed to think so, or they might not have pandered so obviously. At one point Rick Perry literally flung red meat into the audience. But tuning in? I’d wager 6 million of the 7 million are trying to write a blog post about it. That is the trouble with the proliferation of online media.

The Republican Debates have all “Downton Abbey’s” flaws and none of its production design. The most lavish vista they displayed was when Anderson Cooper showed up to moderate and the camera lingered, for a moment, on his eyes. Other than that, it’s all the frustrating missed opportunities, cliches you saw coming from a mile away, and people who Just Need to Pick Cousin Mitthew already, and none of the nice greenswards and cutting one-liners. And there isn’t even the possibility that someone might lose a limb in World War I — Ron Paul already made it through intact.

Oh, another episode of the Republican Debates. I remember, sixty-three debates ago, complaining that we had had too many debates. I was wrong. We had not had too many debates then. We have had too many debates now. I thought this time, with fewer people to say things, they might manage to say them better. But all this debate demonstrated was that it was possible to take two minutes to return a 30-second answer.

I’d rather watch “Downton.”