NEW YORK - The Crawley family is here, but something doesn’t feel exactly right. Robert, the Earl of Grantham and head of Downton Abbey, is sporting a scruffy beard and a disheveled jacket. Nearby, Lady Mary is wearing trousers - and these trousers are far more snug than the harem pants that Lady Sybil once brazenly trotted out in Downton’s drawing room.
In another room, Matthew Crawley is wearing a DKNY suit, sans vest. Cora, Countess of Grantham, is - gasp - wearing an above-the-knee dress. Wine is being poured, and Mr. Carson is nowhere to be seen.
Most shocking of all is housemaid Anna Smith. Her blond hair is teased like a swirl of fresh cotton candy, her makeup is posh, and she’s tarted up in a dress from designer Jason Wu with massive platforms by Jimmy Choo.
The scene here at the TimesCenter in New York is jarring because these actors have become so closely associated with their roles in the period drama “Downton Abbey’’ that seeing them in their 21st-century garb is akin to seeing Woodrow Wilson walking the mall in jeans and a T-shirt.
Season two of “Downton Abbey’’ premieres tonight on “Masterpiece’’ at 9 on Channel 2.
“This is a nice change from Anna’s drab uniform,’’ says Joanne Froggatt, who plays the housemaid, as she flutters her mascara-thick lashes.
“Downton Abbey’’ is a television phenomenon that has swept both the UK and the US since debuting in 2010. The show, which begins with the sinking of the Titanic, entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most critically acclaimed television show’’ for 2011. Tonight’s debut opens in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme in World War I.
Last year, “Downton Abbey’’ was nominated for 11 Emmy Awards, and won six. On the day that the cast was in New York last month, “Downton’’ was nominated for four Golden Globes, including best miniseries or television film, best actor (Hugh Bonneville), best actress (Elizabeth McGovern), and best supporting actress (Maggie Smith). It has already been picked up for a third season.
Season one of “Downton Abbey,’’ which looks at the lives of wealthy Brits and their servants, was watched by 12.6 million viewers in the United States and was the third-most-watched “Masterpiece’’ series in the past 20 years. The show also doubled the usual number of female viewers of “Masterpiece.’’ This week, season one ranks number 10 on Amazon’s movie and TV DVD bestseller list (pre-orders of season two rank number 5).
“It’s a wave,’’ says Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton. “I’m not a surfer, but I imagine that this is what it’s like to be the Big Kahuna.’’
Now that the show has entered popular culture - who on earth knew what an entail was before “Downton’’? - its unfathomable to imagine that the show almost didn’t happen.
“I was having dinner with [‘Downton Abbey’ creator Julian Fellowes] and I was trying to persuade him to go back to the territory that he covered in ‘Gosford Park,’ ’’ says “Downton’’ executive producer Gareth Neame. “I thought if you put something like that on television in an episodic series it would be extremely popular.’’
Fellowes, who won an Oscar for best writing, original screenplay for the film “Gosford Park’’ in 2001, was not convinced. Fellowes feared lightning would not strike twice in the same era and he was cautious about heading back to another period drama. However, Neame says Fellowes had been reading about the “buccaneers,’’ a group of monied East Coast American women who moved to England around the turn of the last century to marry into the aristocracy. These women had the cash, and their British husbands had the breeding, the titles, and the real estate. The character of Cora was born.
“Cora was the first character who was Julian’s purchase on this idea, and I think that’s what got the flame going for him,’’ Neame says. “A few weeks later I got an e-mail, and in it he wrote every single character in the show. Only one or two names may have changed, but he had the whole thing worked out, and at that point we were up and running.’’
Michelle Dockery, who plays the reputation-challenged Lady Mary, said she believes part of the show’s popularity stems from that fact that television viewers are feeling over-saturated with reality shows and graphic dramas.
“We’ve kind of seen it all,’’ she says. “There’s something about ‘Downton Abbey’ that’s classic and simple. It’s something that people now find quite refreshing. It’s not gratuitous. Whereas 15 years ago it may have been seen as boring, now it’s something different.’’
Dan Stevens, who plays cousin Matthew, hypothesizes that part of the show’s popularity stems from the fact that although it takes place in the past, modern viewers can still relate to many parts of it.
“They’re starting to have telephones. They’re starting to have cars,’’ Stevens says. “They have electricity. It’s still very different in many ways, but they’re not riding around on horses wearing bonnets. They’re not taking four months to organize a small birthday party for six people, as often happens in a Jane Austen novel.’’
Both Stevens and Bonneville, who plays the Earl of Grantham, point to the fact that aside from meticulously researched costumes, the stunning setting of Highclere Castle, and the award-winning dialogue, “Downton’’ is essentially a soap opera presented in a format that is familiar to most American viewers. Some plotlines in season two become even more sensational.
“It has a completely modern feel to it,’’ says Bonneville. “It’s written in the style of ‘The West Wing,’ ‘The Wire,’ or [the long-running British soap] ‘Coronation Street.’ This has taken the best elements of the soaps, the best elements of costume drama, and the best elements of miniseries writing.’’
While much of the ensemble cast was sold on the show thanks to the pedigree of Fellowes and Smith, who plays the Dowager Countess, it was that addictive, soap-like quality that made the whole package as intriguing as Mrs. Patmore’s sweetbreads.
Froggatt, who had previously appeared in British television dramas, was planning a move to feature films when her agent sent her the “Downton’’ script.
“Julian had me in two pages, which is incredible,’’ Froggatt says. “The more I read, the more I devoured it. ‘Downton’ has just been so special. I don’t know what it is that Julian has. If I did know, I would bottle and sell it.’’