Actor Hugh Bonneville of "Downton Abbey." (Matt Sayles, Invision )
The summer TV press tour where networks promote their upcoming programming kicked off over the weekend at the Beverly Hilton with PBS presenting first — and that meant one thing: a lot of happy discussion about its big hit,"Downton Abbey."
Still beaming Saturday with an Emmy glow — the show took up residence in the drama category, receiving 16 nominations — a few of the actors from the popular British series, including newcomer Shirley MacLaine, took the stage and reflected on the show's somewhat surprising new fame. The show will return for a third season Jan. 6.
"We're gobsmacked," said Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham. "To have the show embraced so wholeheartedly from America is a great thrill for all of us."
MacLaine will join the cast as Martha Levinson, the mother of Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern). The 78-year-old actress, judging from the extensive preview-reel screenings to journalists, will undoubtedly bring a jolt to the series, much in the way she did to the panel — whether it was joking that she and 77-year-old Maggie Smith, who plays the dowager countess on "Downton," were "lovers in another lifetime" — or plainly stating that she had previously not been a fan of the show and that she took the role only after some convincing.
"I didn't know anything about Martha, I don't even know if you do," MacLaine said, looking to creator Julian Fellowes. "But my hairdresser does. 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 and she's looking for a tight old man.'"
But MacLaine was later upstaged. Bonneville stood up and unbuttoned his shirt to reveal another underneath with a special plea for his character's imprisoned valet: "Free Bates!"
Other "Downton" news included:
— Fellowes said the third season would be one of readjusting: "This season, in a way, is about the recovery from the war. The war brought a tremendous disruption to England," he said. "There are chills and spills involved in that for all the characters ... some laughs and some tears. And that's it."
— With the arrival of Martha Levinson, we're going to see Cora be less inhibited. "As things start to change and the plates are shifting, we're reminded of where [Cora] comes from," Fellowes said. "She's much less afraid of the future than Robert [Lord Grantham] is, and she's much less afraid of expressing that."
— Why does MacLaine think the show is a hit with viewers? "What [Fellowes] has done so brilliantly is make 15 characters ... with just the right amount of time on screen, which fits with the Internet tolerance for emotional knowledge," she said. Fellowes joked that it's a show for people with short attention spans.
Earlier Saturday, PBS President Paula Kerger talked about the difficult decision to fire Fred Willard from the new show "Market Warriors" after his indecency arrest in Los Angeles last week.
"We realized we needed to work fast because we are taping now," she said, noting that PBS didn't want Willard to "become a distraction."
"We talked to [Willard] and decided what we would do was bring in Mark Wahlberg," host of "Antiques Roadshow," the long-running PBS series for which "Market Warriors" was intended as a kind of companion.
The new series will premiere Monday with Wahlberg's voice in place of Willard's.
Kerger also somberly noted that public television's federal funding is again under attack by lawmakers, endangering the future of some stations, which get half or more of their money from federal funds. Some smaller stations "will go dark, and that's what's at risk," she warned.
TCA: Ken Burns takes on 'The Dust Bowl'
TCA: 8 things we learned about 'Downton Abbey'
Emmys 2012: The hits and misses - Critic's Notebook