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Downton Abbey Update

Women rule on new season of Downton Abbey; Houston after-show goes national

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Downton Abbey cast in front of manor
The fourth season of Downton Abbey premieres on Channel 8 at 8 p.m. Sunday. PBS.org
Ernie Manouse, Christmas tree, December 2012
Ernie Manouse, host of Manor of Speaking. Ernie Manouse/Facebook
Downton Abbey
Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery star in the wildly popular series. Photo courtesy of © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE
A Manor of Speaking, Downton Abbey, Ernie Manouse
Manor of Speaking has become Channel 8's highest-rated local program. Courtesy of Facebook
Downton Abbey cast in front of manor
Ernie Manouse, Christmas tree, December 2012
Downton Abbey
A Manor of Speaking, Downton Abbey, Ernie Manouse
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Americans so love the upstairs/downstairs denizens of Downton Abbey, they’ve made it the highest rated television show in PBS’s history. Houstonians so love to talk about Downton that they’ve made Manor of Speaking the Downton after-show the highest rated local show in HoustonPBS’s history.

With the season four premiere of Downton and the season two premiere of Manor debuting Sunday, now is the time to find out why we can’t we stop discussing the aristocratic Crawleys and their loyal and occasionally wonderfully devious servants. Just what new twists will be our twitter water cooler fodder for the next two months? To answer these questions I went to Houston’s foremost expert on Downton gabbery, Manor of Speaking host Ernie Manouse.

So why do 21st century Americans find ourselves so obsessed with the fictional lives of early 20th century British aristocracy? 

Manor of Speaking is Manouse’s creation, inspired by a very unproductive vacation to Amsterdam. Finding the season one and two episodes on his hard drive so compelling, Manouse says, “I ended up spending my whole vacation in my hotel room watching Downton Abbey.” Wanting someone to talk with about the show, Manouse came home and pitched an after-show talk show to HoustonPBS.

Inside the Manor

The first season was such a success that Manor is in the process of going national.

“We’re pleased to announce that now our version of the show, our Manor of Speaking is being distributing nationally,” revealed Manouse. This means other local PBS stations across the country may carry the show live after Downton, though this year that will probably mean streaming the show online.

However, Manouse envisions a time of Manors everywhere. “We assume that next season, next year, we’ll see a lot more stations pick us up. I also think that as stations try to produce a show like this they’re going to realize how expensive and how complicated it really is and they’ll see it’s not as easy as they think. They’re going to think: Hey, why don’t we just use this one?”

Like Downton, some changes are coming to Manor. Fan favorites like tweet-bearing, droll butler Mr. Rogers and Helen Mann, former Vice Consul of Press & Public Affairs at the British Consulate General will be back, but Dr. Robert “The Professor” Patten, who is not teaching in Houston this semester, will be replaced by St. John Flynn, program director for Classical 91.7FM. Also new is a wall of remembrance that pays tribute to those Downton residents who have left us for the great beyond (a.k.a. Hollywood).

When I asked Manouse if going national meant less of a reliance on Houston guests, he assured that would not be the case. “We just happen to be lucky enough to live the in the fourth largest city and have the best experts in the world anyway,” he said.

About the Abbey

During our talk, Manouse kept mum about major plot developments on Downton, but after we discussed the show’s central conflict from the very first episode, the female characters’ struggle to make their way in the early 20th century under laws and class-conscious customs that constrain them, Manouse was willing to describe what he sees as a larger theme working through season four.

 If you look at it though those eyes it’s going to be very interesting to see how all these women see the change that’s happening around them.”. 

“I think it really becomes a very strong woman’s year. If you look at it though those eyes it’s going to be very interesting to see how all these women see the change that’s happening around them,” he explained.

With the dramatic death of Mary’s husband and Downton heir Matthew Crawley, the women are going to have to sometimes come out of their pivotal but behind-the-scenes roles and into a more prominent spotlight.

“I think part of it is that we lost Matthew, and that was a strong male character. We really don’t have another strong male character upstairs,” explains Manouse. “You have Robert [Downton’s patriarch], but Robert seems very much controlled by the women in his life. And Tom Branson, he’s just not that strong a character because he always feels like a an outsider. So really it is the women, it’s multiple generations of women and how they are reacting with the times.”

So why do 21st century Americans find ourselves so obsessed with the fictional lives of early 20th century British aristocracy?

“I think even though it’s set as a period piece, they deal with contemporary issues. We as the audience we don’t feel disconnected from the issues,” believes Manouse. “The same issues we struggle with daily, our challenges and problems, by putting them in a period piece, dressing them up the way they do, we can enjoy watching them, but we can also relate to it. It’s a bit of fantasy but a bit of reality at the same time.”

Coming Up Next

One vexing issue Americans rarely have to confront is being the last country to watch any television show. Downton gives us a taste of the wait that the rest of the world must do for our entertainment exports. Manouse would never give away spoilers, but since season four already was broadcast several months ago in the U.K and the Christmas episode is two weeks old, I can give a few vague hints at what awaits. (Spoiler alert: Don't read further if you want everything to be a total surprise.)

Matthew wasn’t the last character to go because an actor wanted out. One other character will leave Downton, Sunday, but with less drama.

The last episode, the Christmas special, which we’ll be getting in late February, will bring back Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Cora Crawley’s richer-than-god American mother and she’s bringing along her son Harold, played by Paul Giamatti, because who doesn’t love Paul Giamatti? I, for one, can’t wait to see round two of the Americans vs. Dowager Countess quip off.

Finally, one dramatic episode early in the season managed to shock viewers in the U.K even more than Matthew’s death. What will happen and who will it involve? Stay tuned to Downton and then vent your surprise or outrage with the crowd at the Manor.

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