What's the buzziest TV show airing this winter? "American Idol"? Nope, wrong country. Despite airing on musty old PBS, the British period drama "Downton Abbey" (now in its second season) has everyone talking, earning critical raves, winning a shelf full of awards, and pulling in millions of viewers who can't wait to see what's next for the aristocratic Crawley family and their loyal servants. Here, we pull together five facts you might not know about the "Downton" phenomenon.
It's a ratings smash — for PBS, anyway
Its numbers may pale in comparison to the "Idol" behemoth, but "Downton's" ratings are music to the ears of PBS executives. Last month's Season 2 premiere pulled in 4.2 million viewers, doubling PBS's primetime average and topping established cable hits like "Mad Men." "Downton" even bravely held its ground last Sunday against the Super Bowl, airing a new episode during the big game. It got trampled, of course -- but it did score the second-highest ratings in the timeslot, beating out network offerings like "Family Guy" and "CSI: Miami." Not bad for a stuffy British drama set during World War I.
'Downton' marks the comeback of an '80s movie star
Most of the "Downton" cast is filled with British actors unfamiliar to U.S. audiences. But you might recognize the woman playing Cora, the American wife of Lord Grantham: It's Elizabeth McGovern, who became a film star back in the 1980s, co-starring in "She's Having a Baby" (alongside Kevin Bacon), "Ordinary People," and "Ragtime" (which earned her an Oscar nomination). After more than a decade spent in TV-movie hell, McGovern is now back on Hollywood's radar with her acclaimed performance as the sweet-faced but iron-willed caretaker of Downton.
You can walk the halls of Downton yourself
The lushly regal estate of Downton Abbey, where most of the show's action takes place, isn't just a TV creation: It's a real-life British castle. The series films in Highclere Castle, tucked away near Newbury on a thousand acres of pristine English countryside. And yes, it's open to the public, so you can visit the very rooms that Lord Grantham and his daughters sit in for tea. The Los Angeles Times did a great rundown of the house's history, including the news that the castle has received the royal seal of approval: Queen Elizabeth herself has been a frequent overnight visitor to the castle in years past.
Lady Mary and Cora might be storming up the iTunes charts soon
Those piano sing-a-longs we've heard from Lady Mary this season are no fluke. Michelle Dockery (who plays Lady Mary) is an accomplished singer and has plans to release an album of music along with co-star McGovern (who plays Mary's mother, Cora). Us Weekly reports that the pair are already recording together and are prepping their album for a fall release. Just don't let them cover any LMFAO; our hearts couldn’t take it.
Season 3 will be a showdown between Oscar-winning grande dames
Good news, fans: A third season of "Downton" is already in the works. Season 3 began filming this month and is set to debut in the U.K. in September. (PBS hasn't announced a U.S. premiere date yet.) And we already know Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess is going to have some competition next season: Film legend Shirley MacLaine has signed on to play Cora's mother Martha, who arrives at the estate ready to be yet another thorn in the side of the Countess. Two Oscar-winning legends battling for control of Downton... the servants had better make sure the fine china is put somewhere out of harm's way.
"Downton Abbey" airs Sundays at 9 PM on PBS.