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Maggie Smith in 'Downton Abbey'


All good things must come to an end.

Season Two of Downton Abbey concluded yesterday (Sunday, Feb. 19) in what was billed as a special, two-hour Christmas episode airs on Masterpiece.

No need to don mourning clothes, though, because the hit British show will be back on PBS in early 2013 with Season Three, which just went into production in England.

For those who can’t wait, see the clip below. It’s Downton’s three Crawley sisters – Jessica Brown Findlay, Laura Carmichael and Michelle Dockery – dishing the Christmas special with British TV chat show host Jonathan Ross on his Yuletide program last December. Watch for a cameo by Tom Cruise and an even funnier one by Jim Carter, who plays butler Mr. Carson.

The Emmy-winning period drama has turned into the biggest hit that PBS has had in years. More than four million viewers have been tuning in for the show weekly this year, which is more than twice the usual primetime audience for the network. Discussions of Downton pop up regularly on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.

What’s the secret to Downton’s success? Besides the obvious, that is, which would be Maggie Smith and her constant stream of quips and complaints (“Why does every day involve a fight with an American?”) as the Dowager Countess.

The show’s appeal lies both in its form and its execution. In form, it’s a classy soap opera. It offers characters who are sympathetic and villainous, romances that are consummated and thwarted, and plotting that weekly provides cliffhangers and resolutions. Combine that with superb execution, as in a stellar cast, sumptuous sets, and detailed costumes, and you have the ingredients for a show that hits the sweet spot for PBS viewers.

While Downton has brought plenty of new viewers to PBS, for longtime viewers it’s a welcome return to form. The channel’s predecessor, NET (National Education Television), scored its first sizable hit in the fall of 1968 with The Forsyte Saga. This 26-part BBC series, which was based on a series of novels by John Galsworthy, was set between 1906 and 1921 and focused on the messy lives of an upper-class English family. Like Downton, it became a phenomenon, drawing viewers who claimed never to watch TV.

Granada Television remade the series in 2002. This new version, starring Damien Lewis and Gina McKee, aired on PBS in 2002 and 2003 on Masterpiece.

PBS, which was created in 1970, had its first major hit in 1974 when it began airing Upstairs, Downstairs, a Downton-like period soap that chronicled the activity in a London townhouse occupied by Lord and Lady Bellamy, plus their adult children upstairs and the servants below. Co-created by actresses Jean Marsh (who played Rose, a maid) and Eileen Atkins, the show during its five seasons covered the period between 1903 and 1930. (In England, the show aired on ITV, which now runs Downton.)

Marsh returned to her role as Rose last year, with Atkins joining her on screen (she hadn’t been in the original), in a new version of Upstairs, Downstairs, which ran on BBC in England and PBS stateside. The reboot began in 1936 with new owners (played by Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes) moving into 165 Eaton Place, the house long occupied by the Bellamys. While it was neither critically nor commercially as successful as Downton, the revived Upstairs, Downstairs did well enough that a second season will air on PBS’ Masterpiece in 2013.

So everything old is new again, at least on TV. Who knows, maybe in thirty or forty years there’ll be a revived version of Downton Abbey to view (on a tablet or phone or however we’re consuming entertainment in 2050) and you can kvetch loudly, as you wave your cane around for emphasis, that you watched the show the first time around and it was ever so much better then.


Did you watch Downton Abbey’s Season Two finale? What did you think?


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By Leah Rozen