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Not since "Upstairs, Downstairs" caught on with American viewers nearly four decades ago has there been a show like "Downton Abbey."
This sprawling yet intimate tale of early 20th-century nobles who live in a mid-19th century castle and the servants who run the place is "the best thing that has happened to 'Masterpiece' in ages," said Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of "Masterpiece Theatre" since 1985.
Thirteen million Americans watched the first season of "Downton Abbey"; it won six Emmys, including best miniseries and a supporting actress award for Maggie Smith.
Local fans are joining the throngs of national viewers who are anticipating its return. "The first season was one of our most popular series," said Mary Dickson, KUED's director of creative services. "People couldn't get enough of it. We got so many calls when it ended, saying, 'When's it coming back?' Everyone wants more, more, more. And may I say, from my own experience, it's very addictive."
"Downton Abbey" is definitely something different from an American TV drama. "This is a quintessentially British genre, isn't it?" said executive producer Gareth Neame. "This sort of country house, historical drama."
"Downton Abbey" isn't an adaptation of a novel, although it feels like one. This tale of a nobleman, his family and their country estate sprang from the mind of Julian Fellowes, an Oscar-winner for his "Gosford Park" screenplay.
Neame credited Fellowes' "extraordinary ability" to keep "20 spinning plates [going] all at the same time. It's very modern, contemporary storytelling, but in a period setting. Audiences love this sort of social interaction, the way that these people lived under a different code from the way that we live now. They're somewhat absurd to all of us, but yet we're quite intrigued by them."
In the first season of "Downton Abbey," Lord Robert Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) found himself at a loss when his nephew and heir went down in the Titanic. Because of British law, his daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery) can't inherit the estate. And the money his wife, Lady Cora Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), an American heiress, brought to the family was inextricably tied to the estate.
Enter distant cousin Matthew Crawley (Stevens), a proud member of the middle class, as the new heir, while the family's fortunes are tied to an unresolved romance between Mary and Matthew.
At the same time, drama is playing out among members of the household staff, with a large cast of heroes and villains a mix that made it compelling viewing. "It's historically accurate, emotionally true, and it's a lot of fun," McGovern said.
And it's uniquely British. The characters are great at keeping a stiff upper lip and terrible at expressing emotions. "So everything that Matthew might be saying to Mary can run very, very much counter to what he's actually feeling," Stevens said.
"You have that fantastic parallel of text and subtext in every single scene, and I think that is what makes it so appealing," Neame said.
It's an ensemble drama that feels like it's from another era. "All 20 characters have their own stories in each episode," Neame said. "Some of them resolve within episode; some of them continue. So although we've got the higher stakes of the war, really the show feels very similar."
At the end of Season 1, World War I broke out. That's pivotal to the Season 2 narrative, as some characters go to war while Downton Abbey is transformed into a convalescent hospital for the wounded.
Matthew and Mary continue as star-crossed lovers who hide their feelings, while the story includes births, deaths and jaw-dropping plot twists.
And there is the fabulous Highclere Castle, designed by the architect responsible for building the Houses of Parliament, which poses as Downton Abbey. Stevens termed it "an incredibly imposing and striking building. You get into your costumes and makeup, and then you have this sort of 200-meter walk up to the house and you're running the lines in your head," said Stevens, who added that he relished working there. "And it is wonderful preparation for playing those scenes."
That will continue: The third season of "Downton Abbey" is scheduled to being shooting at Highclere Castle in the spring.
Season 2 of "Downton Abbey" premieres Sunday, Jan. 8, from 8 to 10 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7. The six remaining episodes air on successive Sundays (Jan. 15-Feb. 19) from 8 to 9 p.m.