Last year, Salt Lake City playwright Kathleen Cahill felt like she couldn’t escape “Downton Abbey.” “Anywhere I went, ‘Downton Abbey’ came up,” she said. “Any social occasion. You’re standing with a drink in your hand, and ‘Downton Abbey’ comes up. You overhear people talking about it. It’s very bizarre.”
Cahill, who writes the introductions for “Masterpiece” host Laura Linney, isn’t the only one surprised by the popularity of the series.
“In fact, the executives at ‘Masterpiece’ were saying it was too melodramatic,” she said. “There was some question about whether they even wanted to produce it.”
Boy, are they glad they did. “Downton Abbey” has caught the pop-culture wave — in a way no PBS drama has since the original “Upstairs, Downstairs” aired some 3 1/2 decades ago.
“How much fun is this?” asked Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of “Masterpiece” since 1985, at a news conference for TV writers promoting the show’s third season.
The show’s popularity came as a complete surprise to the cast and crew. “None of us had any expectation of that at all,” said Hugh Bonneville, who stars as Lord Grantham. “We have a word in England, which is ‘gobsmacked.’ And to have had the show embraced so wholeheartedly by America is very special to us.”
Michelle Dockery, who plays Grantham’s daughter Lady Mary, had a similar reaction: “Overwhelmed” is the word she used.
It wasn’t until the series began airing in the United Kingdom (before it debuted on this side of the Atlantic) that the cast realized how popular it is among viewers you wouldn’t expect to be watching period drama.
“The first time I realized that it was, as it were, breaking the boundaries of the expected audience was when a lad in my son’s playground came up to me — he’s about 10 or 11 — and said, ‘I don’t like that Thomas,’ ” Bonneville said.
That would be Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the manipulative footman/petty thief who is noted for his plots against his fellow servants. He’s the sort of character you love to hate, in what amounts to a really good soap opera set in the early 20th century, featuring a grand estate, fabulous costumes and great writing.
And, clearly, viewers are fascinated by it. It’s the most-watched show in “Masterpiece” history; Season 2 finale drew 5.4 million U.S. viewers — and that doesn’t count all the online views.
Overheard at the hairdresser • Cahill isn’t the only one who overheard people talking about “Downton Abbey.”
Oscar-winning actor Shirley MacLaine didn’t know anything about the show until “I walked into my hairdresser lady in Malibu and they were talking about this.”
She checked out the show and got hooked — and then she was asked to join the cast as Martha Levinson, the mother of Lady Cora Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern).
“I didn’t know anything about her. But my hairdresser does,” MacLaine said with a laugh. “All the ladies in my hairdressing place said, ‘Oh, she’s Jewish and she’s from Long Island and she has a lot of money.’ I thought that might be worthwhile investigating. Along with the great acting and a fantastic show, that’s basically why I did it. To see if my hairdresser lady is right.”
More than just a show • “Downton Abbey” has become more than just a show to a lot of its fans. Some viewers hold parties where fans dress as their favorite characters, while KUED is inviting Utah fans to a costume-party fundraiser to celebrate the kickoff of Season 3. Other “gobsmacked” viewers take “which character are you?” quizzes on Internet sites. “They’re having ‘Downton Abbey’ support groups,” Cahill joked.
Joanne Froggatt, who plays maid Anna, got an email from the vicar who married her inquiring about a set visit. “If Jo could fix it for me and my wife to go to the ‘Downton’ set, she’ll go straight to heaven.”
Brendan Coyle, whose character, Lord Grantham’s valet, Mr. Bates, walks with a limp, recalled a letter he got from a viewer with a similar affliction.
“All of his life, he had these terrible nicknames thrown at him,” Coyle said. “Now he’s being called ‘Mr. Bates.’ So he’s writing to thank me for giving him, at last, a cool nickname.”
It’s a sure sign that a show has entered the pop-culture consciousness when it’s parodied — and there have been parodies of “Downton Abbey” on everything from “Saturday Night Live” to “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” to “Sesame Street” to an Arby’s commercial.
“They’re not going to do a parody if they think the audience isn’t going to know who the heck they’re on about,” Bonneville said. “It’s a form of flattery.”
What makes a TV hit? • There’s a certain alchemy that’s difficult to analyze when a TV show suddenly claims a spot in the pop-culture zeitgeist. “Everyone always says, ‘Why do you think it’s so popular?’ ” said creator and writer Julian Fellowes. “And the answer is you haven’t a clue.”
There have been a lot of great series on “Masterpiece” over the years, so what made this one take off in such an unusual way? Fellowes speculated it might be in part because “Downton Abbey” sprang from his imagination, rather than being an adaptation of a classic novel.
“There is a liberation in it being original because you can go into areas of the period that a contemporary novel would not have done,” he said. “There are many subjects … whether it’s women’s rights or homosexuality or whatever, which you wouldn’t find in a novel written in 1906. And so you have that freedom.”
But he works to be true to the time period.
“You must be careful to try and give people reasonable reactions and emotional responses that are right for their own time and not simply someone who’s been parachuted in from 2012.”
“Downton Abbey” is set in a world completely unlike 21st-century America, which may be part of its appeal. “I think we find that upstairs, downstairs, class thing very interesting,” Cahill said.
KUED-Channel 7’s director of creative services, Mary Dickson — who, by the way, dressed up as MacLaine’s character for Halloween — speculated the show’s success comes because it is “pure escapism.”
“Look at all those movies in the ’30s where they were wearing evening gowns while the rest of the country was struggling,” Dickson said. “Nobody lived like that. But people couldn’t stop watching.”
Of course, it’s also just a great story done well. “What [Fellowes has] done so brilliantly is make, what, 15 characters or combinations with just the right amount of time on screen, which fits with the Internet tolerance for emotional knowledge,” MacLaine said. Once she started watching the show, she quickly discovered: “I was just as addicted as everybody else, making me wonder about my attention deficit syndrome.”
As Season 3 begins, there’s a financial threat to the future of Downton Abbey; another roadblock in the path of true love for Lady Mary and Matthew (Dan Stevens); and Mr. Bates is still in prison, wrongly convicted of murder.
And, rest assured, the actors are as caught up in the show as the fans. That was clearly demonstrated by Bonneville, who jumped up om the midst of a press conference, pulled open his dress shirt and revealed a T-shirt emblazoned “Free Bates.”
We can only hope.
Season 3 on PBS
“Downton Abbey” returns to “Masterpiece” on Sunday, Jan. 6, at 8 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7.