Failing to review "Downton Abbey" when it premiered on PBS in January is a great regret. There was just too much on my plate and I didn't have the time to either review or make it a part of the podcast. Sepinwall caught up with it a couple months later and then I finally carved out the time to watch it last month and it's almost inevitable that "Downton Abbey" will end up in my Top 10 for the year and I'm eagerly awaiting the new season.
That new season, coming to PBS in January 2012, is why we're in a Beverly Hilton ballroom on Sunday afternoon.
Our panel includes stars Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Dan Stevens and Siobhan Finneran, plus producers Gareth Neame and Rebecca Eaton. We're missing most of the "Downstairs" component of the upstairs/downstairs conceit. We're also missing creator Julian Fellowes. But I'll live-blog whatever comes to pass. Consider it atonement for the lack of review...
1:54 p.m. Amusing sizzle reel for "Downton Abbey" is set to "Downtown." Some of the juxtapositions are hilarious. Mostly, this is going to lead to a lot of "Downtown Abbey" typos in this live-blog.
1:55 p.m. To be more specific, "Downton Abbey" will premiere its new season on January 8, 2012. It will run for seven weeks. Viking River Cruises will be serving as sponsor for Masterpiece starting at the end of this year. This is very exciting for the PBS people.
1:59 p.m. Three more "Sherlock" movies/episodes will premiere next spring, probably in May. PBS will also have another installment of "Upstairs/Downstairs" launching in 2013.
2:03 p.m. Pre-"Downton" panel, we're watching a clip from the Masterpiece production "Page 8," which features Bill "Not The Science Guy" Nighy, Michael Gambon and Rachel Weisz. It also co-stars Ralph Fiennes and Julie Davis, which pretty much makes it the classiest thing you'll see on TV this year.
2:05 p.m. And now clips from "The Song of Lunch," in which Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson play former flames who reunite for lunch (and to discuss their time teaching at Hogwarts, I presume).
2:08 p.m. Oooh. Clips from "Downton" Series Two! It's going to premiere in the U.K. in the fall. Two years will have passed since we left Downton, so we're two years into the war. I'm not going to be able to wait until January... I'm inclined not to spoil things from the clips, but I'll probably be spoiling bits and pieces in this live-blog...
2:16 p.m. Michelle Dockery could be Sarah Wayne Callies' sister. I don't know when there'd be call for that. But she could be.
2:18 p.m. Why aren't Americans getting "Downton Abbey" day-and-date with the Brits? "Complications," we're told. The American version has to be formatted differently to fit their time slots and they can't get the tapes until December. I'm not sure if that's a good answer.
2:19 p.m. What did Dockery think of Mary? "She came across as a very cold person and very much of a snob and up until the incident with Pamuk... I think Mary became a lot more vulnerable from there on and I think she softened from there on, because something had actually happened to her," Dockery says. She hints that in the second series, Mary is still pining for Matthew, "but that affection for him is still very much there."
2:21 p.m. The Masterpiece executive smacks down a reporter who asks about editing between the American and British version, saying that only 20 or 25 minutes were trimmed, which had more to do with advertising and time periods than anything else. She outs the Daily Mail reporter who misreported. Christopher Hastings, apparently.
2:22 p.m. "We may have to slow down with the history a little bit," Neame says, noting that The War will end during Season 2. "Our ages of the characters will get very fudged," Neame says of what will happen if they keep going.
2:24 p.m. "The original concept of the show was to being with that Titanic moment... and I suppose the outbreak of World War I felt like the next piece of momentous history," Neame says of the structure of the first series. "It seemed like a very natural place to end things," Sevens says. He looks much less foppish without his period attire.
2:25 p.m. The missing 20 minutes from the British original will be on the American DVD release. "If you can identify which ones they are..." series producer Rebecca Eaton says.
2:26 p.m. "I love playing her. I think she's really good fun. I think she's funny as well as being evil. She's softer for the new series, slightly softer," says Siobhan Finneran, who looks absolutely nothing about the sever Miss O'Brien.
2:27 p.m. Why did this connect with viewers? "This is a quintessentially British genre, isn't it?" Neame says, suggesting that it's the combination of Julian Fellowes' original writing with the familiar genre. "Audiences love this social interaction," Neame says. "I would say the show is closer to something like 'Mad Men,' where you have a period setting and modern writing than it is to previous Masterpieces before it," he adds. It's about having the freedoms of the modern narratives.
2:29 p.m. But why were American audiences drawn to it? "It's historically accurate, emotionally true and it's a lot of fun. That's my answer. It's fun to watch," says McGovern, the panel's lone Yank. Rebecca Eaton adds that for PBS' audience anglophilia isn't a dirty word.
2:30 p.m. Will Season Two going to be similarly open-ended? "The narrative structure is very, very similar. It's chock-full of story, every episode," Neame says. He promises that at the end of the season, some narratives will resolve and others will remain open-ended. The British airing will be eight-straight weeks of airing, followed by a break and then the finale. We'll get all of it over seven weeks, with no wait before the finale.
2:32 p.m. Do the actors love dressing in the marvelous clothes? "I can't answer that," pouts Finneran, who says she only has two costumes "and they're both black." "There's a lot of costume envy from you guys," Dockery cracks. Neame notes that for aristocrats in that period, they'd often change outfits five or six times in a single day "So it's really central to the storytelling."
2:33 p.m. McGovern jokes about the ridiculousness of the period corsets women squeezed themselves into back then, but then points out that she's wearing precarious high heels today. "So nothing has really changed," she says.
2:34 p.m. This time around, we won't even lose 20 minutes of footage. "Every frame," Eaton promises us.
2:35 p.m. What's it like working in a castle? "It's a really nice place to work," Steven says, adding that the long walk from their changing area helps you get into character. "I think they're making a lot more revenue for weddings and visitors," Neame says of the availability of their main location for events.
2:38 p.m. McGovern lives permanently in England now. You can hear hints of a fake English accent in her normal speaking voice.
2:40 p.m. "In series two, he's surrounded by a lot of explosions," Stevens says of how Matthew is different this season. "It's a bit of a darker storyline," he says, adding that he has "heroic" moments.
2:41 p.m. "Mainly the things that we carry and can drop are our own. Fortunately the gold veneer bookcases are theirs," Neame says of the decoration of the castle set. "A lot of the big fixed pieces of furniture are there, but we bring in a lot of the smaller things," Neame says. Note that most of the Downstairs scenes are actually filmed on a stage in London.
2:43 p.m. Stevens and Dockery are asked about the restrictions, emotionally, of playing characters from that period. "Very often the emotional intention of the scene runs directly parallel to the verbal intentions," Stevens says, calling it one of the best things of doing costume dramas. "It's interesting to play those scenes where the emotions and true feelings are repressed," Dockery says. "It's very English," adds Stevens. Dockery says that today everything is more "exposed." Neame adds that in almost every single scene, there's a subtext and a gap between what's said and what's intended. McGovern is giddy that all of the show's producers understand subtext.
2:45 p.m. Has O'Brien changed in Series Two? "She's carrying quite a lot of guilt with her about what she did. But she doesn't turn into Mother Theresa, you'll be pleased to know," Finneran says, referencing the unfortunate incident involving the soap. There's one character from Season One who isn't back in Season Two, teases Rebecca Eaton. But she won't tell us which character it is. [Neame has no problems telling us that it's Gwen who won't be back. Sadly, we won't see her progression as a secretary. "Maybe we'll bring her back at some point in a secretarial role, as a professional woman," Neame says.]
2:48 p.m. How do they decide how much to have Laura Linney explain in the opening introductions? "I wish we'd had Laura Linney give us a lecture on the entails," Stevens jokes. Eaton says that there's much less to explain in Season Two, but that Linney will still do introductions. Eaton also says that they refer to the "entails" as the "entrails." PBS humor!
2:50 p.m. Neame hasn't seen any of the Linney introductions. "It would be completely mistaken to think that the British audience had a clue what an entail was," Neame says. He points out that "Downton Abbey" plays to a mainstream British audience that is similarly clueless on entail-law. "It would be wrong to think that that was an explanation because we all understand it and Americans don't," Neame concludes.
2:52 p.m. There are quite a few new characters. There are additional love interests for Mary and Matthew. There's a new housemaid. There's a new male servant. There's a new dog. "You want to have a bit of turnover, don't you, of new life coming in, but you don't want it to be radically different," Neame says.
2:53 p.m. Eaton has one announcement that she forgot to make earlier: They've ordered a pilot titled "Endeavor," about the young Inspector Morse. They're going to announce casting for the key role on Wednesday on ITV.
That's all, folks...
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