"Downton Abbey" brings TV elegance

You're first duty now is to watch the season-openers of the IFC (Independent Film Channel) comedies, at 10 and 10:30 p.m. tonight (Friday, Jan. 6).

They're both odd and funny; there's a preview two blogs ago. The blog that I sent after that has newsy bits about NBC's makeover.

That leaves your next duty, to catch Sunday's elegant "Downton Abbey" season-opener. Here's the story I sent to papers; later, I'll also put a handy guide to the characters:


In the steady, sturdy world of
“Masterpiece Theatre,” change is rare.

Over 40 years, the series got much
respect and modest ratings; then “Downton Abbey” arrived. “It
is the best thing that has happened to 'Masterpiece' in ages,” said
Rebecca Eaton, the series producer.

There was a big bump in ratings (up 43
percent for the season) and in honors (six Emmys, including best
movie or miniseries). Now a second round of “Downton” begins.

Why the success? In the past, “Downton”
producer Gareth Neame said, “Masterpiece” writers have often felt
obligated to stick to the framework of a novel from centuries
earlier. This time, however, writer Julian Fellowes created an
original story. “I would say the show is closer to something like
'Mad Men,' where you have a period setting, but modern writing.”

The era – 1912 in the original, 1916
now – is viewed from a modern perspective. The pace is quick and
the events keep piling up, barely a notch above soap opera.

Providing the soapy push are two
attractive central characters who almost became engaged:

– Lady Mary Crawley, the eldest
daughter of Robert, the earl of Grantham. Her one-night stand with a
Turkish diplomat – who promptly died in her bed – was tenuously
hushed up. “Things only got worse for Lady Mary,” Eaton said.

– Matthew Crawley, her distant
cousin. He's a lawyer who is expected to inherit the estate. Now
wartime intervenes. “It's a bit of a darker storyline for him,”
said Dan Stevens, who plays him.

Stevens, 29, seems closer to a modern,
romantic-comedy star, complete with joltingly blue eyes and an easy
manner. He confesses to being “very badly behaved in school”
until he discovered acting; then he did the classics, on stage and in
the “Sense and Sensibility” on “Masterpiece.”

Michelle Dockery, 30, seems fairly
close to Lady Mary. Tall (5-foot-8) and well-spoken, she's done
theater and was Erminia Whyte in the “Masterpiece” production of
“Cranford.” Now she plays a hesitant character she understands.
“I'm very shy … I think a lot of people are like that.”

Mary's relationships are usually
careful and understated. “It's really interesting to play those
scenes where the emotions and true feelings are repressed,” Dockery

These modern young actors transformed
at a base camp near Highclere Castle.

“It is an incredibly imposing and
striking building,” Stevens said. “You get into your costumes and
makeup … and then you have this 200-meter walk up to the house and
you're running the lines in your head. It's a wonderful preparation
for playing the scenes in that enormous house.”

Actresses made that walk often.
“Aristocrats had no function whatsoever,” Neame said. “So for
the women, most of their day was spent changing, dressing, undressing
…. There were four or five or six different outfits worn in any one

That's for the half of the cast playing
upper-crust Crawleys. For the others, things are simpler. “I've got
two costumes,” Siobhan Finneran said. “Just two. And they're both

She plays Sarah O'Brien, maid to the
countess (Elizabeth McGovern) and often scheming with William Mason,
the second footman. Except that William goes to war; so do Thomas
Barrow, the first footman, and Matthew Crawley.

Back at the castle, life continues
under the earl (Hugh Bonneville), his wife (McGovern) and the dowager
countess (Maggie Smith, who won an Emmy in the role). Meawhile,
Isobel Crawley – Matthew's mom – tries to nudge the manor into a
modern era.

“You see this beautiful world,”
McGovern said, “on the precipice of cataclysmic change.”

Life changes – even for Downton
Abbey, PBS and “Masterpiece Theatre.”

– “Downton Abbey, Season 2,” 9
p.m. for seven Sundays on PBS (check local listings)

– Opener (Jan. 8) and final weeks
(Feb. 12 and 19) are two hours; others are one hour