NEW YORK - Of all the tchotchkes rabid fans have bestowed on their idols, few are as noteworthy as the special something Hugh Bonneville received from a woman in the Midwest: A "lovely" platter hand-painted with a scene depicting Highclere Castle, the real-life setting of the entirely fictional Downton Abbey, and his character, Lord Grantham— doing Gangnam Style.
"I don't quite remember where the Gangnam Style thing came up, why (South Korean rapper Psy) came to her mind as she painted this extraordinary scene. But anyway, it's delightful," says Bonneville, looking more tweed-and-gingham than Gangnam. "So I serve biscuits on that."
For Sunday's Season 4 premiere on PBS (9 ET/PT), the denizens of Downton haven't quite galloped into a 2012 future of novelty horsey dances, but they have trotted timidly into 1922. Mary is the lady in black, mourning her beloved Matthew and sorta/kinda being a mum to their 6-month-old son and heir, George. Widower Branson is veritable buddies with Robert, Lord Grantham, who's loosened his ascot a bit (even if he still has a firm grip on his amber-filled decanter). And the era's K-Pop — jazz — has filtered up from London to the estate, though the result is as stiff as you'd expect.
"It's bad uncle dancing, really," says Bonneville, 50, sitting in an aptly Deco Midtown hotel lounge. "The modern world creeps very slowly into the world of Downton."
But the real world — viewers from Chattanooga to China — has burst right in, nosing around the brocade-bedecked parlor rooms upstairs and eavesdropping on the flour-dusted staff downstairs. The show has become a PBS ratings rout: Season 3, which saw two of its stars perish in the most woe-inducing ways, averaged 11.5 million viewers and became the network's most-watched drama ever, up 65% from Season 2.
And it's a true cultural phenomenon, spawning alternate online story lines (what if Lady Sybil lived?), costumed viewing parties, a Manton Abbey support group (for guys who binge-watch just as proudly as their wives) and wildly obsessive fans who scrutinize, catalog and cross-check, say, every bottle of claret for historical accuracy.
"I don't think anyone involved in production knew how big it was going to get," says Rebecca Eaton, Masterpiece's executive producer. "The magnitude of the audience was completely unexpected."
The reasons have been combed through as finely as Cora's hair: The voyeuristic thrill at delving into an aristocratic society altogether foreign to Americans. The gorgeous, period-accurate costumes. The withering zingers delivered by Maggie Smith. The hierarchy inherent to the story, yet absent from the storytelling, "so you know as much about Daisy the kitchen maid as you do about Lord Grantham," says Allen Leech, who plays Branson. Amid the show's nearly two dozen characters, "everyone finds someone they're rooting for. Or they hate."
Rob James-Collier, the hated (he prefers "misunderstood") Thomas the butler, promises "people falling in love, people falling out of love, people dying: It's got all the grand themes. And skullduggery."
But Eaton has yet another theory. Unlike almost any other returning series on American or British television, "it's not very cynical. There's something good-hearted about it," she says. "I think we're drawn to that, a community that works. They don't always do the right thing or the good thing, but they often redeem themselves."
One would think that losing two stars to other projects — Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) and Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil) — poses a particular challenge to creator Julian Fellowes, who has written every word of the show. But aside from some misguided hate mail from fans who thought he intentionally killed off the beloved Matthew ("I will never watch anything you've written again ever, you horrible person!" one wrote), the mild off-screen drama actually afforded him opportunities onscreen.
"Because he was dead, it meant we could have a time gap, and we didn't have to come back and do death and funerals and all the rest of it," says Fellowes, wearing a brass-buttoned blazer and a gold signet ring. Fellowes talks about deaths as casually as other TV titans talk about costume changes.
The stress comes not from cast changes but from success. "The more successful it is, the more expectations rise, the more people want to (say) 'Oh, I can't wait for the next (season).' And you think, 'Oh, God.'
"American (fans) I think are more liberated than the British in expressing themselves," Fellowes says. "They are rather passionate here. One woman grabbed me the other day with tears in her eyes saying, 'Be kind to Edith!' "
Oh, jilted-at-the-altar Lady Edith. Fellowes' philosophy is that some people, like the hapless Edith and the misbegotten former butler Molesley, are just fundamentally unlucky. "Edith has earned a happy ending. I don't have any qualms about that," Fellowes says. "Because I think the war has changed her for the better. She's a more interesting person … She's a deeper person."
Laura Carmichael, who plays her, goes so far as to call her a nascent feminist. "She wants something from her life," she says, almost unrecognizable in her sleek black pants. "She's not just content to sit in the background" amid the dour Crawley family oil portraits. So she gravitates toward her true love, Gregson, in London and dabbles in the flapper lifestyle — with scandalous consequences.
Fellowes doesn't know when Edith's happy ending will come. "I don't think (Season 5) will be the end, but it won't be too much longer than that," he says. "There may well be a Season 6 but it won't be 12 seasons. It's not going to be one of those" series that overstays its welcome.
Besides, he's got other rich worlds — literally — to document, in The Gilded Age, an upcoming NBC series about New York in the late 1800s, "when you had the old, the really most established American upper class of the Stuyvesants and the Van Rensselaers and the Winthrops, and then you had this new glitterati, of the Whitneys and the Astors and the Vanderbilts, all of them coming down on New York and fighting it out" — Downton style.