TV Royalty

The Brits' Surprising Emmy Hit

‘Downton Abbey’ creator Julian Fellowes and the cast of the critically acclaimed period drama talk to Jace Lacob about their Emmy nominations, the show’s insane popularity, and what’s coming up on season two.

08.29.11 7:27 PM ET

Few could have anticipated the fever that critically acclaimed British costume drama Downton Abbey brought when it first premiered last year in the U.K. or when it arrived on U.S. shores in January. Since its launch on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic, which brought in 13 million viewers, even more have discovered it on DVD and online.

Now season two is almost here, and the cast and crew are eager to find out how many of its numerous Emmy nominations will lead to wins in September. Downton Abbey’s second season will air in the U.K. beginning Sept. 18 and then stateside on Jan. 8, 2012. (Unlike the first season, which had roughly 20 minutes eliminated from the full run, season two will air in the U.S. in its entirety, without any edits.) Meanwhile, the period drama is up for a whopping 11 Emmys, including outstanding miniseries or TV movie, a category that is typically owned by pay-cable network HBO.

“Nothing is more pleasurable then when you start to reach other countries,” said creator Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park). “You take a show which is, after all, in some ways quintessentially English, and yet you find an audience beyond England. I don’t want to be too jejune. Of course, I love being nominated for things, and it’s great when you win them, but the main thing is just it demonstrates that your show has traveled, and that’s marvelous.”

The Downton Abbey cast has been shocked by the level of loyalty the show engenders. “I’ve spent so many years reconciling myself to the fact that the work I do, only I will really care about,” said Elizabeth McGovern, who plays lady of the house Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham. “I was shocked and surprised.” Her co-star Michelle Dockery, who plays eldest daughter Lady Mary, said that they knew they were onto a good thing. “But you can never predict how an audience is going to respond,” she said. “I was surprised by the enormity of the success.”

Romantic lead Dan Stevens—who plays the middle-class heir to Downton, Matthew Crawley—pointed to the show’s iconoclastic nature as to why it has clicked with audiences. “You can play a little more fast and loose with the rules,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be all repressed and [full of] unspoken things. There can actually be a few cheeky lines here and there that give a nod to the modern era.”

“Apart from the brilliant writing, the costumes, and the nostalgia, I think they’re seeing something completely new,” said Dockery. “There comes an energy with that, which just keeps the audience wanting more. We were always told about this ‘Downton depression’ that people suffered once it finished.”

Fellowes admitted that he was surprised by just how much viewers on both sides of the Atlantic have taken to Downton, but pointed toward the fact that the show isn’t your typical costume drama, since it’s structurally more analogous to American primetime shows.

“It’s much closer to The West Wing or NYPD Blue or ER,” said Fellowes. “The whole notion of having lots of stories all going simultaneously … and you can’t take your eye off it for a minute or you’ll lose the end of that story, or lose the middle of that one. The old period drama was much more of a single narrative linear construction, where, honestly, you could go to the loo and then make a sandwich and come back and pick it up.”

Downton also speaks to our modern mores rather than merely reflecting those of pre-WWI England, said Fellowes. “If it had been done in the ‘50s, the family would all have been incredibly gracious and charming and the servants would all have been comedic,” he said. “If it had been done in the ‘90s, the servants would all be gallant and downtrodden and the family would all be horrible, mendacious, slimy, and selfish. But we’ve gone a different way, really. They’re just a group of people who are living in this house and working, and some of them are nice and some of them are less nice, some of them are funny and some of them aren’t, and so on. But there is no automatic division between the two groups in the house.”

When the show returns for its second season, the First World War will befall the great house, altering all of the characters’ lives—both upstairs and downstairs—in interesting and compelling ways. Fellowes says season two will mostly take place between 1916 (two years after the end of season one) and the armistice, with the final two episodes exploring what happens thereafter. “We see what the war does to them, really," said Fellowes, "and how they pick themselves up and dust themselves down at the end of it,” from the emerging rights of women to the opportunities afforded the working class. “You see how the war affects every single character, and in the hugest way possible,” added Dan Stevens. “These are epic changes going on in everybody’s lives.”

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Downton becomes a convalescent home during the war, bringing in a number of new struggles for the family and the staff. Tonally, however, the show doesn’t lose its winning juxtaposition of light and dark, humor and pathos, even as it veers from the trenches in the Somme to the drawing room at Downton, where the Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith) also hasn’t lost her biting tongue. “We all love the costumes, the evil footman, and the one-liners from Violet,” said Stevens. “They are still very much there.”

“The stakes are much higher,” Elizabeth McGovern noted. “[Executive producer] Gareth Neame put it very well [when] he said, ‘There’s no longer a panic about the missing snuffbox; it’s about the missing arm or leg or life.’ There is a depth that we bring to [season two] that is a completely different thing altogether.”

While season two—consisting of eight episodes and a Christmas special (which will be seen in the U.K. in December)—has yet to air, Fellowes is already thinking about a potential third season, set in the 1920s.

“The Christmas special takes us up to the dawn of the ‘20s,” he said. “Here is a very distinct period. Suddenly, the modern world is really beginning: the movies and a much, much wider use of the motorcar, and all of those things. The 1920s is one of the first periods where youth became a kind of recognizable cultural separate group. Before, in 1850, young people were just younger than old people, and on the whole, they all wore a version of the same clothes. But the ‘20s changed that … The young were completely different. They were in makeup and short skirts. All of that was altering tremendously …That will be the background, if it happens, of a kind of different world happening beyond the park gates.”

In the meantime, however, there are those 11 Emmy nominations to think about, which only increase the pressure facing Fellowes and the cast to match or even outdo the dizzying heights of the first season. But Fellowes faces the challenge with the rigor and calm that would make a Grantham proud.

“There is pressure because we had this extraordinary success with it last year,” Fellowes said. “But, I mean, the only time when there isn’t any pressure is if the show’s been a flop. So, if I’ve got to choose, I’d rather have a hit and some pressure.”