Nothing gold can stay, not even a long-running British drama that's brought a massive audience to public television in the United States. So the question of what the next "Downton Abbey" might be is an important one for PBS -- so important, in fact, that in her opening remarks to the Television Critics Association last night, Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton said that "If you think that isn't the question that keeps me awake all night, every night..."
It was a funny enough remark to draw some laughs from the crowd, but Eaton quickly followed it up with this: "There never will be another 'Downton Abbey,' but we are swinging for the fences, and we are going to die trying to find the next 'Downton.'"
And in fact, before the executive producers and selected cast of the show were brought out to reveal a few secrets from the show's upcoming Season 5, critics were treated to a preview of PBS Masterpiece's upcoming "Downton"-esque programming.
The Fall 2014 slate includes:
- The adaptation of P.D. James's "unauthorized" "Pride and Prejudice" sequel "Death Comes to Pemberley," starring Matthew Rhys of "The Americans" and Jenna Coleman of "Doctor Who."
- "Pemberley" co-star James Norton will also star in "The Grantchester Mysteries," a 1950s period piece about a priest in a small town suddenly consumed by murder (based on the books by James Runcie).
- The biggest stars lurk in the second and third parts of the "Worricker" trilogy, otherwise known as the sequels to 'Page Eight,' a contemporary thriller telefilm that starred Bill Nighy, Ralph Fiennes and Judy Davis. The second and third parts add to the cast Helena Bonham Carter, Rupert Graves, Winona Ryder, Dylan Baker and Christopher Walken (who easily got the biggest reaction from the crowd).
And then, in 2015, here's what you may find yourself watching:
- Period romantic drama "Poldark," starring Aiden Turner of the UK's "Being Human" (or, depending on your preferences, Kili the dwarf in "The Hobbit").
- "Wolf Hall," a dense political exploration of Thomas Cromwell's influence on King Henry VIII (the latter played by Damian Lewis of "Homeland").
- "Indian Summers," set in the early days of India's quest for independence, starring Julie Walters of "Harry Potter" and "Billy Elliott."
And that all came before the main action of the evening: Executive producer Gareth Neame, as well as cast members Michelle Dockery, Allen Leech, Laura Carmichael and Joanne Froggatt were brought on stage for questions following a preview of the upcoming Season 5 (which is still in production, and won't premiere in the UK until this fall), and while specifics about new plotlines were not revealed, a few key details did slip out.
[Some spoilers for "Downton Abbey" Season 4 follow below.]
Beyond sexy talk from and about Maggie Smith's iconic Dowager Countess, the preview footage hinted at the continuation of storylines from "Downton" Season 4, including the secret-filled marriage of the Bates, Lady Mary's ongoing quest for love as a widow and Lady Edith's struggle to conceal her illegitimate child.
The new season will begin six months after the last episode (the Christmas special), setting it in either late 1923 or early 1924, and Neame did promise twists and turns beyond Season 4 fallout. In addition, Dockery said that Lady Mary, after a season of mourning, would be "embracing her new life," and would have "a bit of her bite back." Expect that to play into her relationship with sister Edith, as both actresses discussed how much fun they have snarking at each other.
It was also confirmed that Shirley MacClaine and Paul Giamatti, who played American relations to the Crawley family last season, would not be returning for Season 5 (but that they could return for future seasons). Joining the cast this season, though, are Richard E. Grant and Anna Chancellor, both of whom are playing characters, it was promised, come to Downton "looking for something." (When asked for specifics, all Leech would hint at is "What we're all looking for.")
That's about all that was officially confirmed during the panel, though during a post-panel conversation Leech indicated that he and the other castmates who'd made the trip from England to visit Los Angeles for the panel were safe. "Look at the ones who aren't here," he suggested.
It was a question worth asking, because "Downton" is a show unafraid of eliminating characters, either because of fate or circumstance or murder. In fact, the most important question of the evening to be asked went unaddressed. "Who will Mr. Bates murder this season?" one journalist asked.
"All bets are off," Neame replied.