"Downton Abbey" was already a moderate-sized phenomenon last July when we got our Season 2-previewing Television Critics Association press tour panel last summer. That was a big deal, but it's nothing compared to the build-up for Saturday's (July 21) TCA panel, which is the centerpiece of PBS' weekend, with a panel, an associated buffet dinner and a subsequent reception. 

I already had a 10-minute sit-down with Brendan "Mr. Bates!" Coyle earlier this afternoon and I'll post that soon.

But here's the live-blog from the panel, which features creator Julian Fellowes, as well as many of the show's stars.

7:10 p.m. Dinner complete. This room has rarely been more packed. People are cuckoo for "Downton Abbey."

7:11 p.m. TRAILER! Maggie Smith says something catty. Shirley MacLaine arrives. There's a new tall serving man. The Plain Sister is flirting. Mr. Bates is in jail and Anna is visiting. Uh-oh! Money's gone! Could the servants be in jeopardy? Hot Sister is back to visit and her hubby is being all political. The ladies play cards! Carson's offended to be serving Hot Sister's Common Hubby. Mary and Matthew are bickering. People are crying. More talk about missing money. Uh-oh. The Crawleys are not in good shape. And Hugh Bonneville's earning his Emmy nomination for next year. There's a wedding coming up. Will this be the End of an Era at Downton Abbey? Perchance! Dirty talk with Matthew and Mary. Shirley MacLaine again! Hugging Maggie Smith and being catty! 

7:17 p.m. On the panel, we have Julian Fellowes, Michelle Dockery, Gareth Neame, Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth McGovern, Hugh Bonneville, Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle.

7:19 p.m. Our first question was about last season's darkness, with the war. Will this season be brighter and more cheerful? "We like a few laughs. This season, in a way, is about the recover from the war," Fellowes says. The theme is about whether or not the world is changed forever. He promises laughs and tears.

7:21 p.m. UGH. Questioner asks if the actors are more happy because Emmy recognition comes from Americans? Bonneville tips his hat to Jon Hamm and Damian Lewis by name and says he was "gobsmacked." "Overwhelmed. It's wonderful that the show has been recognized in so many categories," Dockery says. Dockery is especially happy that their composer, overlooked last year, was nominated. Coyle told me this story earlier, but Froggatt and Coyle were shooting a scene and took a normal pause, found out they were nominated and then in the second half of the scene, they had a post-nominated glow. "It'll be interesting to see if people spot that scenes," Froggatt says.

7:24 p.m. "There's a liberation in it being period, because you can go into areas that a period novel would not have done," Fellowes says. "The discipline is to look at those subjects, but within the context of the period," he emphasizes. The goal is to avoid having characters who seem like they've been parachuted in from 2012. "With 'Downton' the fun is that it looks like a classic period drama... but the energy is much more modern. I think that has worked for us," Fellowes says.

7:26 p.m. Was MacLaine a fan of the show? "It definitely creeps into your pores," MacLaine says, calling it "an extraordinary experience" in terms of stamina and work ethic. She shot outside and in the rain and wind. "And nobody seemed to notice, so I think we just stepped right in there and acted like I didn't notice it either," she admits. MacLaine says that she'd seen that "Downton Abbey" was a hit in a variety of Asian countries that she'd visited. "What he's done so brilliant is make 15 characters... with just the right amount of time on screen, which fits with the Internet tolerance for emotional knowledge," MacLaine says. Fellowes cracks that it's a show for people with short attention spans. MacLaine was not, however, a fan of the show before. She heard about it at her hairdresser in Malibu. When she was announced for the show, she didn't know anything about the character, but her hairdresser did. "That's basically why I did it, to see if my hairdresser lady is right," she says.

7:29 p.m. MacLaine is asked about this being her Year of Alignment. But she doesn't want to talk about this now.

7:30 p.m. Had MacLaine and Maggie Smith met before? "Well, we were lovers in a movie," MacLaine cracks. Apparently they met 40 years ago at the Oscars and the met at the catering table over a chocolate cake that MacLaine devoured when she didn't win. "She remembered more than me, but she's younger than me," MacLaine says. Wow. Who'd have guessed Smith was a year younger than MacLaine? 

7:30 p.m. "I felt that I really didn't know who Cora was until I met Shirley. Suddenly it all became clear and for two years I was in a bit of a fog," McGovern says. "It became very clear to me the journey that Cora had undertaken to go from Shirley to The Countess of Downton Abbey," she adds. McGovern calls her character flexible and resilient and "strong in a quieter, more self-effacing way" than lots of images of female strength that have perpetuated in recent years. What qualities does McGovern share with Cora? "None. I'm a raving lunatic," McGovern says. "She's right," MacLaine laughs.

7:34 p.m. Because Cora has had a different upbringing than Robert has, she's less afraid of the uncertainty of the future. "If anyone understands the world that's coming, it's Cora," Fellowes says. 

7:35 p.m. "None of us had any expectations of that at all," Bonneville says of the pop culture breakthrough that "Downton Abbey" had. He realized when a young child at his son's school came up to him and said, "I don't like that Thomas." They're all pleased with the various parodies. "There have been so many parodies I think we should do one ourselves," Dockery says.

7:37 p.m. Fellowes is asked about the anachronisms that people have pointed out. "When these people complain, the newspapers all assume that the complainant is correct and the show is not," Fellowes says. "Colloquial language is a lot older than a lot of people think," he says. "With the language, I haven't yet found one where the complainant proved to be correct," Fellowes says. McGovern says that they've been cautious on set. Fellowes likes the show to feel alive and to make it clear that "there isn't a place called Period, where these people live in funny clothes." MacLaine, speaking of funny clothing, wonders about the size of the buttons on her costume and notes that she literally couldn't get dressed by herself and she wonders if the attire developed to match the class system or vice versa. Or something.

7:42 p.m. Did the actors take the Which "Downton Abbey" Character Are You Quiz? "I got Lady Mary. I'm really happy about it," Coyle says. Nobody else seems to have. Fellowes has lots of stories he wants to tell and he's not interested in sticking with questions. He wants to keep talking about MacLaine's point about the costumes.

7:43 p.m. Did Coyle and Froggatt know the full arc for Bates? "It's an event to get the script," Coyle says, admitting that he didn't know that Bates was going to be found guilty. "It was a fascinating read," Coyle says. Froggatt says she gasped. "It's just as much of a surprise to us," Froggatt says.

7:45 p.m. Are there other institutions of British life that we're going to see this season? We're going to see Mr. Bates in prison. And... yeah, Fellowes didn't understand the question. 

7:48 p.m. "Will they come to America?" MacLaine asks. "We have chosen the other route and brought America to us." Fellowes says.

7:48 p.m. How is aristocratic life changing? "These were tough years for those families, for that set-up, for those households," Fellowes says. He talks for a while about "death duties," which doesn't mean anything to me. "Is it going to be worth it? Is it going to be possible? And you're going to have to watch the series to find out," Fellowes teases.

7:50 p.m. Does the think about any past characters or past storylines that were pushed to the wayside that they want to revisit? "I think we're all very happy with the way Julian writes for us all," Froggatt says, noting that Julian has expanded and built characters around actors. Bonneville says that Isis the Dog wants more screentime. Neame tells a story of Isis ruining a recent scene between Hugh and Elizabeth. "The dog is called Abbey," Dockery laughs. 

7:53 p.m. Has Dockery's character given her pause to think about women in that period? And is she sympathetic? "Mary started out as a bit of a brat. She was certainly far colder in the beginning," Dockery says, noting that the incident with Pamuk softened Mary. "I've really enjoyed that journey that I wasn't expecting," she says. "The risk of scandal makes her vulnerable. She was invulnerable before that," Fellowes explains. Mary, he notes, is not a rebel. She wasn't to negotiate the rules of society so that she can stay on the inside. "She can never, to herself, feel the superiority of being perfect again," Fellowes says of life after Pamuk.

7:56 p.m. How long or how far does Fellowes want to take the show? "I don't think we've really thought in that way. Each series takes two years, mas or menos," Fellowes says, calling the '20s an interesting period. He suggests, though, that we've seen the '30s and the build-up to another war as frequently depicted and familiar. In the third series, we see the impact of the Irish Troubles on the family. "The Irish Problem seemed to be a yawning problem for Britain and the British Empire," Fellowes says. "We always try, in 'Downton,' to make references... and we never really explain it. And what we hope, in our very simple way, is that people go off to their Internet," Fellowes says of the "vague sprinkling of events and references that if you check them out will work and are true." He promises a slow movement through the 1920s. He jokes that they could go up to the Wall Street Crash and end on Robert playing a ukulele. 

7:59 p.m. Coyle says that Mr. Bates' limp was a process, but it has become second nature.

8:00 p.m. Would the British stars be interested in coming to The States and doing American TV. "It's a phenomenal time for US television," Coyle says. Rebecca Eaton correctly points out that they've all done other work between seasons of "Downton Abbey." But wait! Fellowes wants to talk about the limp. It was Fellowes' wife who suggested the limp, because normally no valet would be able to do that job while having a limp. "It seemed such a simple change to make, but it worked," he says. 

8:02 p.m. Two more questions. So, will Julian tell us if that was truly Patrick Crawley last season? "No," Fellowes says, meaning he won't tell us. Boo. Wasted question.

8:03 p.m. Last question is for Hugh. Is it the wealth that makes Robert Crawley or is there something inside him that makes him an ideal man? "His destiny was pre-determined. He was born to hand on his estate to the next generation," Bonneville says, reminding us that his marriage and family were built out of economic convenience. At this point Bonneville loosens his tie. He turns around and unbuttons his shirt and he reveals to us that his t-shirt reveals... "Free Bates." 

8:05 p.m. A fine way to end the panel.

 

That's all, folks...