PBS at TCAs: “Emotional” Thomas on “Downton Abbey,” Cheyenne Jackson as Annie? “Knots Landing” redux?

(l-r) Hugh Boneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Shirley MacLaine,

The Television Critics Association (TCA) Summer Press Tour kicked off this weekend with PBS taking the first two days to preview their programming for the fall and winter. While the PBS days are notoriously the quieter days in the 2-week cavalcade of the networks trotting out their new shows, there was quite an excited buzz that was in the air when the cast and creative team of Downton Abbey turned up for a panel to talk about the upcoming third season, which premieres in January on PBS.

The panel, in the room of awestruck TV critics at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, featured Emmy nominees Brendan Coyle (Bates), Joanne Froggatt (Anna), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) and Hugh Bonneville (Robert) along with Elizabeth McGovern (Cora) and new cast member Shirley MacLaine (Martha) as well as Executive Producer Gareth Neame and creator Julian Fellowes. The series is nominated for Outstanding Drama Series with noms also for Maggie Smith (Countess of Grantham), Jim Carter (Carson) and Fellowes.

The third season of the UK series will air on PBS in January and while he wasn’t about to give away too much in terms of upcoming storylines, Fellowes did reveal, “this season, in a way, is about the recovery from the war. The war brought a tremendous disruption to England and took many, many families of all sorts. And even though there were those few years when people were trying to decide was the world going to go back, was it going to be the same as it was before, had it changed completely, was the future going to be completely different? And that’s really the kind of theme of the series. And you know, there are chills and spills involved in that for all the characters, some laughs and some tears.”

We’ll definitely get to know Thomas (Rob James-Collier) better in Season 3, says Fellowes.

Grabbing a few moments with Fellowes after the panel, the creator told AfterElton that we’ll see more of closeted footman-turned-valet Thomas (Rob James-Collier). “Thomas now is a more powerful person in the house. He’s been promoted to valet at the end of the last series. We see more of his emotional life, really, in [season] 3.”

And while Thomas may be one of the characters that we love to hate on the show, Fellowes said there’s reason for why Thomas is he who is. “The thing about Thomas, he’s a bastard in a way but it was very, very hard to be gay at that time and a lot of young kids, I don’t think they realize that you could go to prison for soliciting. Not even for doing it but just for making an advance. Soliciting for immoral purposes, so called, and you could go to prison.”

Fellowes added that things we may take for granted today could have much more severe outcomes in the early twentieth century. “Every time you tried to make a pass or pick someone up,” he explained, “you were taking your life in your hands and most people would brush it off today but you never know and in those days people knew they had the power to make big trouble for you so, for me, that makes [Thomas] a sympathetic character. It doesn’t matter how WASPish he is. You have a kind of fundamental sympathy for someone who’s making their life against those kinds of odds and that’s why he’s one of my favorite characters.”

James-Collier, who was not present for the panel, brings much to the role, Fellowes said. “He’s a very good actor and he’s got that thing of layers so that you know he’s in great pain, really, but he’s always putting on his sort of WASPish face.” Pressed for more details on Thomas, Fellowes smiled and said, “I can’t tell you more but only that there is more and it’s more developed in Season Three.

(l-r) Brendan Coyle, Joanne Fraggott, Hugh Boneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Shirley MacLaine,
Garetn Meane, Michelle Dockery, Julian Fellowes &
Masterpiece EP Rebecca Eaton

Besides the already stellar cast, Academy Award-winner MacLaine, 78, comes to Downton Abbey as the mother to Cora and, as seen briefly in a preview clip from the new season, should have some entertaining scenes exchanging barbs with the Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith). Asked if she had ever worked with Smith before, MacLaine, long known for her beliefs in past lives, laughed and revealed, “Well, we were lovers in another life.”

Fellowes said that MacLaine, as Martha, will be bringing more to the show than merely a tussle partner for Maggie Smith. “One of the key elements that Shirley brings into the show is,” he said, “ to remind us that Cora’s upbringing was not the same as Robert’s. And during the years of the first years of her marriage, to a certain extent that’s all been suppressed, and she’s had to get on with it and do it the way they do it. But as things start to change and the kind of plates are shifting and we are reminded what Cora’s come from, Cora is less afraid of the future than Robert is. She’s much less afraid of change. And now you’ll start to see more and more of that because she’s less afraid of expressing that…and in a way the bringing in of Martha ushers in that new era by reminding us you come from a different past. Which you do so well.

Other highlights of what’s to come in the third season include the money woes of the formerly well-to-do Crawley family and Mr. Bates still being imprisoned for the murder of his devilish ex-wife. And, perhaps expressing the sentiments of viewers who sympathize with Bates’ predicament just as he’s married Anna, Bonneville removed his tie and opened his dress shirt to reveal a t-shirt that said “Free Bates.” Bravo, indeed!

Next page! Cheyenne Jackson performs, David Geffen recalls the 80′s and those Knots Landing rumors.

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