Characters who previously obsessed over planning a perfect garden party are struggling with life-and-death issues as "Downton Abbey" begins a new season Sunday, Jan. 8, on PBS' "Masterpiece Classic" (check local listings).
The series, which bested such heavyweight competition as HBO's "Mildred Pierce" remake to win Emmys as outstanding miniseries and for creator Julian Fellowes' crackling scripts, opens two years after the conclusion of season one, with the Crawley family of Downton Abbey and its staff trying to cope with the challenges of World War I.
For Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), that involves frustration over not being allowed to serve on the front lines and being relegated to serving as an aristocratic morale booster on the home front, while all three of his daughters -- Mary, Edith and Sibyl (Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Jessica Brown-Findlay) -- are forced by events to grow up and make personal sacrifices for king and country.
"That struck me as an interesting dynamic for the second series, taking these people that we know in peacetime from the first series where the big issue was whether someone had stolen a snuffbox," Fellowes says. "Suddenly, we fling them into a war where the big issue is are they going to be killed?"
Of course, a large share of the "Downton" fan base is going to be focused most keenly on the strained relationship between Lady Mary Crawley and her cousin, Matthew (Dan Stevens), the designated heir to the Downton estate. And as season two opens, things do not look promising for the couple.
"Mary returns from London, having spent time with Aunt Rosamund (Samantha Bond), and the first thing she hears is that Matthew is coming home, and Edith takes great pleasure in telling me immediately that he's coming with his fiancee, which is a huge shock to Mary -- and she discovers very quickly that Matthew has moved on, and she needs to do the same," Dockery says of the first episode. "And she introduces the family to a new character, Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen), with whom she pursues a relationship hoping that she can move on, too. It's very clear, though, that they're together not for the right reasons, for purely practical reasons, and she is still pining for Matthew."
Even before "Downton Abbey" premiered last year, the cast members suspected they were part of something special. "You know when you're onto a good thing," Dockery says. "I don't think I could ever have predicted how enormous it would be, though."
It wasn't long after the show bowed in the U.K. that all those involved realized they were part of a phenomenon, however. A few weeks into the run, Fellowes recalls opening the Times to see a huge picture of the three Crawley daughters and a headline suggesting that a member of Parliament belonged in the outdated period of the show.
"It was a criticism of some bill he was trying to pass, and I thought, that's the moment where you burst the banks and enter the zeitgeist, the national conversation," Fellowes says.
As ratings for the show climbed with each successive episode, Stevens says he started noticing people referencing "Downton Abbey" in the oddest contexts, even in stories that had nothing directly to do with the show itself.
"It's become kind of a cultural touchstone," the actor says. "If you set up one of these Google Alerts to send you any articles that contain the phrase 'Downton Abbey,' the number of articles that come in (is staggering). It may be an article about, I don't know, heating pipes or something like that and the first paragraph will be something like, 'Well, it's not quite Downton Abbey.' It's out there in the cultural vernacular now. It's really strange."
Unprecedented, perhaps, but maybe not really all that strange, given the acclaim heaped on the miniseries when it premiered on "Masterpiece Classic" in early 2011. Critics and fans alike seem to have caught on that Fellowes has created, for them, the best of both worlds: a sprawling period saga with vividly drawn characters that offers the opulence of the genre while moving at a brisk pace that defies a viewer to look away. It doesn't hurt, either, that Fellowes isn't shy about spicing up the dramatic brew with some sexual kinks that Charles Dickens and Jane Austen never could have dreamed of writing about, including a scandalous season one indiscretion on Mary's part that still threatens to ruin innocent lives in these new episodes.
"Julian can actually slip in there and play a little fast and loose with the usual rules of period drama," Stevens says.
"What's different about Julian's writing is that most people expect the pacing of a period drama to be quite slow and deliberate, but actually his writing has a very modern structure that keeps the audience riveted," Dockery adds.
For his part, Fellowes says he is touched and grateful for the warm reception this program has received in the United States, and he hopes audiences here respond to season two, even though it's inevitably darker than last year's episodes.
"It's impossible that it's not darker, but it's still focused on Downton," he promises. "It really is Downton at war, not England at war or the trenches."
Dan Stevens (left) and Hugh Bonneville star in "Downton Abbey," which begins its second season Sunday on PBS' "Masterpiece Classic" (check local listings).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun