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'Masterpiece' for the masses

Under Rebecca Eaton, dramas like 'Downton Abbey' attract more, and younger, viewers.

By / Staff writer / March 15, 2012

PBS’s ‘Downton Abbey,’ with its massive cast, is a breakout hit. Next season will see the addition of Shirley MacLaine as Lady Cora’s American mother. Season 3 opens in the spring of 1920 and spans about 18 months.

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Will Lady Mary and her soul mate, Mat­thew, really wed? Will beloved manservant Mr. Bates escape the hangman's noose? Will Mrs. O'Brien's shocking secret be revealed?

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The lives of people, both high- and low-born, on a rural English estate nearly a century ago wouldn't seem a likely subject for a hit television series. But "Downton Abbey," whose second season ended in late February, has broken out of the highbrow world of public television and into wider public consciousness, winning unheard-of ratings, numerous awards (six Emmys, including best miniseries), and adoration from fans and critics – all while attracting a new, younger audience that eagerly shares the series on social media like Twitter and Facebook.

"Downton" may have also removed the last layer of dust from "Mas­terpiece," the more than four-decades-old Sunday night PBS staple where "Downton" appears. "Masterpiece," once defined by the image of avuncular Alistair Cooke discoursing on the fine points of English literature from a wingback chair, has become a fully 21st-century franchise.

Yet longtime viewers are finding nothing amiss. When a "Masterpiece" series clicks, as "Downton" has, audiences both new and old are rewarded with great stories well told.

What else is in store this season

"Downton Abbey" has been "a gift, a blessing, a windfall," says Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of "Mas­ter­piece" for the past 27 years. "It has pulled in a great number of new viewers or lapsed viewers." Now that "we have them back in the tent," she says, the aim is to keep them there.

The 2012 schedule is chock-full of efforts to do just that. April 1 sees a new adaptation of Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations," starring American actress Gillian Ander­son ("The X-Files"), David Suchet ("Poirot"), and Ray Winstone ("Hugo," "Cold Mountain"). April 15 offers more Dickens (2012 is the 200th anniversary of his birth) with "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

That's followed by a run of "Masterpiece" mysteries beginning with the second season of "Sherlock," featuring rising star Benedict Cumberbatch as the iconic detective, reimagined as though at work today, aided by an Afghan war veteran named Dr. Watson. It's followed in July by "Wallander," featuring a tightly wound Swedish detective (Kenneth Branagh) obsessed with solving crimes.

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