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Scott D. Pierce
Scott D. Pierce writes about television for the Salt Lake Tribune. Vice president of the Television Critics Associationn, he's covered TV in Utah since 1990.

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"Downton Abbey" interviews turn out to be as as much fun as the show

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - PBS threw a press conference here on Saturday night, and it turned out to be something akin to a "Star Trek" convention.

Only instead of "Trek," it was all about "Downton Abbey."

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The room was full. The air was electric. There was great energy on the stage and in the seats.

This doesn't often happen during the PBS portion of the Television Critics Association press tour. Honestly, I can't remember anything like this in the past couple of decades.

But there aren't a lot of PBS shows that have caught the imagination of the critics - and the public - the way "Downton Abbey" has.

Rebecca Eaton, the longtime executive producer of "Masterpiece," has introduced a lot of these panels before. And she could feel the difference.

"How much fun is this, huh?" she said. "I have never in my life felt the need to get out of the way quicker than I do tonight."

And when she announced a clip of the upcoming season, there was sort collective "Woo!" from the critics. Which also doesn't happen often.

"Downton Abbey" creator/writer Julian Fellowes was there, along with executive producer Gareh Neame. So were Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary); Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora); Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham); Jo Froggatt (Anna); Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates); and Shirley MacLaine, who joins the cast as Lady Cora's mother, Martha Levinson.

And they seemed to be having as much fun as the critics - both at the press conference and on the job.

"I had a fabulous time," MacLaine said. "I will never forget it."

From what little we've seen, neither will viewers. There will definitely be a showdown between the mothers-in-law in Season 3 - MacLaine as Lady Grantham's mother and Maggie Smith as Lord Grantham's mother, Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess.

In the clip, we see a chilly greeting between Martha Levinson and Violet Crawley. And an exchange between the Dowager Countess and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stephens):

"When I'm with her, I'm reminded of the virtue of the English," the Dowager Countess says.

"Isn't she American?" Matthew says.

"Exactly," the Dowager Countess replies.

In person, the two actresses got along famously.

"Well, we were lovers in another life," MacLaine joked.

She went on to say that Smith told her they'd met 40 years ago backstage at the Oscars. Next to the catering table. Next to a big chocolate cake.

"And whatever I was up for, I lost, and somebody else won," MacLaine said. "And Maggie said, 'You know what you did, dear? You tucked right into that chocolate cake and said - [expletive] it. I don't care if I'm thin ever again.'"

It was that kind of night. A night that ended with Bonneville - who plays the ever-so-buttoned-up British Lord, opening his shirt to display a t-shirt emblazoned with "FREE BATES" - a reference to the wrongful murder conviction and imprisonment of Mr. Bates in the Season 2 finale.

The Season 3 premiere on Jan. 6 seems a very long way away.

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