BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It’s an irony that acid-tongued Violet, aka the dowager countess of Grantham, would savor: One of TV’s hottest romances is playing out among English nobility, with nary a cell phone or laptop in sight and, most shockingly, on PBS.
“Downton Abbey” devotees eagerly await the drama’s season two return 9-11 p.m. EST Sunday, when the romance of Matthew and Lady Mary resumes its rocky course as World War I scars Europe. There’s also fallout from the war within Mary’s family digs, the stately mansion that gives the series its name.
Consider it “Yorkshire 90210,” but with writer-creator Julian Fellowes’ witty dialogue and rich characters, stunning period costumes and (generally) chaste love affairs.
Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens, who play the star-crossed young couple, said they are both delighted and surprised at the series’ international success.
“It’s huge in Australia,” Dockery said.
“And Spain,” added Stevens. The 11 Emmy nominations and six trophies, including best miniseries, earned by the period drama’s first season were a thrill: “For a show like this to get that kind of attention over here, it’s great,” he said.
Success has created a burden of secrecy regarding the fate of young lawyer Matthew, unexpected heir to Downton under England’s early 20th-century inheritance laws, and Mary, who could keep her family’s hold on the estate by marrying him.
In season one, the willful Mary had rejected, accepted and rejected again smitten Matthew, and then she was rebuffed. Now both have turned elsewhere for love, while war and other historical events toy with their fates.
Dockery, 30, and Stevens, 29, project such on-screen chemistry that people who know better confuse fiction with fact.
“There was a great picture of me and Dan at the Derby (the famed horse race) and even my boyfriend said, ‘It kind of looks like you’re together,’” Dockery said, smiling.
Fans are desperate to know what happens next.
“Not least my own wife,” said Stevens, interviewed on a California visit before season two aired in the U.K. “She’s forever trying to find the scripts and is desperate to read them.”
Spouse Susie Hariet now knows the story so far, with the season just concluded in Britain (a third season has been announced). But U.S. viewers who avoid spoilers online must wait for the drama to unfold over seven weeks, through Feb. 19.
Downton’s younger generation matures quickly during wartime, with Matthew tested as an army officer slogging through trench warfare in France.
“It was a real delicious challenge to take on, such a far cry from the first season for me. I was caked in mud for half the series,” Stevens said. “For a lot of us, it feels like a graduation in terms of what was asked of us, emotionally, and the intensity of the story lines. The stakes were higher and everything is notched up one or two pegs.”
Dockery said she and Stevens got the chance to switch up their acting game.
“Matthew becomes more harder as a result of what he’s seen and been through, and Mary’s much softer. It’s really interesting playing that,” she said.
There’s more to “Downton Abbey,” of course, than one star-crossed couple. Robert, the earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), is itching to jump into the war, while wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and younger daughters Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) make their own wartime contributions, and the girls pursue romance.
And there’s major action downstairs. Among the estate’s servants, some are called for war duty while Bates (Brendan Coyle), Lord Grantham’s valet, and head housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), find their future together endangered by Bates’ vengeful estranged wife.
Commenting with glee and self-interest on the action is Violet, her lines delivered impeccably by grande dame actress Maggie Smith, a 2011 Emmy-winner for her portrayal. In a scene in which she gives her granddaughters approval to aid the war effort, Violet reminds them that Great Aunt Roberta “loaded the guns at Lucknow.”
Fellowes, the man behind all the clever words and stories, already proved his mastery of the genre with the Oscar-winning script for the 2001 stately mansion drama “Gosford Park.”
PBS is hoping for a repeat of last year’s ratings bonanza. “Masterpiece,” the umbrella series under which “Downton Abbey” airs, had a 30 percent ratings increase and saw its ratings for young adult female viewers double.
New “Masterpiece” sponsor Viking River Cruises, which stepped in last year in after a difficult search to replace longtime underwriter ExxonMobil, found the experience rewarding enough to agree to support the series for 2012.
Another fund established to allow public TV station contributors to make direct donations to “Masterpiece” of $25,000 and up met its goal of $1 million, “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton said recently.
That’s “a Godsend as we go forward, because these programs are not getting any cheaper,” she said. PBS teamed with British producers on the series.
Eaton gave vague but tantalizing hints of what is in store for season three, which will be set in the 1920s and which PBS hopes to air a year from now.
“People will live. People will die. People get married. People get born. Bates will probably continue to be in trouble. That man cannot seem to get out of trouble,” she said.
Amen, say “Downton” fans.