Big changes coming to 'Downton Abbey'?

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – Who knew Tom Branson could be such a cut-up? Actor Allen Leech, who plays Downton Abbey’s downstairs chauffeur turned upstairs estate manager, proved to be funny and charming at PBS’s Tuesday night press conference for “Downton Abbey,” which returns for its fifth season on Jan. 4.

When asked about plots for the next season, Mr. Leech joked, “Well, the unicorn farm no one expects. Definitely out of left field.”

“It’s much more pleasant than the pigs,” added actress Michelle Dockery whose Lady Mary had to share screen time with swine in season four.

As for what might actually happen in the new season, which picks up six months after season four ended, the cast and producer Gareth Neame were pretty tight-lipped, though snippets of scenes shown to TV critics reveal Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) appears to be stalking the daughter born out of wedlock who she gave up for adoption.

“”It feels harder this year to talk about than any other previous series,” Ms. Carmichael said. “We're so stuck in not wanting to overshare and spoil.”

Ms. Dockery said there are significant changes for most of the characters and Mr. Neame said getting deeper into the series has led to mounting complications.

“For all of these characters, everything is just ratcheted up,” he said.

Some critics complained about the quality of season four but Mr. Neame defended it.

“For me, when I look back at 4, I actually think it was one of the strongest seasons that we have ever had,” he said. “I think one of the difficulties with some of the earlier seasons ‑‑ for example, Season 2, having to cover the war -- it slightly took us out of our environment. Characters left the home of Downton and went elsewhere, and we had to try and cover those things. There's something very core ‘Downton’ about season four. … I'm not saying everything we've done is perfect and I wouldn't change a thing. We certainly would. But season four I'm very pleased with.”

(In fairness season two was more preposterous with the Patrick story; season four was mostly dull because it seemed to repeat some story beats from earlier seasons.)

There was also some negative commentary about the use of rape as a plot device for Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt). Ms. Froggatt said she understood the responsibility of that story.

“I just want any viewer that may be watching this, that's been through that experience or a similar experience in their own lives to know that I've taken this more seriously than anything else I could possibly have done and that I have really, really put my soul and heart into making this an honest performance as possible,” she said. “Anything else is sort of beyond my control after that really.”

Mr. Neame speculated any negative reaction to the Anna story stems from viewers’ perception of “Downton” as a soft, witty, family show but that the program has also tackled tougher issues, including the death of Mr. Pamuk in season one.

“We are about an environment where not just women, but actually certain of the men and women are in vulnerable positions,” he said. “I don't just mean in sexually vulnerable positions, but this is a place of class. It is a place where those with money and power and status have one life, and those who do not have a very different kind of life. … So I know it was very shocking to a lot of people, and I think the reason for that is primarily people love these characters so much.”

Mr. Neame did reveal that actors Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti will not be back in season five, but they could return in a season beyond the one that’s upcoming. Producers were mum on how long they think the series might go but they did divulge that, unlike in season three when Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) had to be written out abruptly when the actor declined to continue with the show, producers and the actors are on the same page about their participation beyond the upcoming season.

“We've all come to a comfortable arrangement that is mutually beneficial,” Mr. Neame said.

“You're expecting the ‘Downton Abbey’ Red Wedding, aren't you?” Mr. Leech joked, a reference to an episode of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” that ended with the bloody deaths of multiple characters.

“I think we've already done that in stages, haven't we?” Mr. Neame added. “They kind of spilled it all in one episode. We just strung it out.”

From ‘Broadchurch’ to ‘Gracepoint’

BBC America's "Broadchurch" debuted last summer to terrific reviews for the David Tennant-starring crime drama about the murder of a child in a small town. Now Fox is remaking the series as "Gracepoint" (9 p.m. Thursday starting Oct. 2), again starring Mr. Tennant in what's essentially the same role.

For "Broadchurch," viewers the first two episodes of "Gracepoint" feel like an almost shot-for-shot rehash. For those who haven't seen "Broadchurch," "Gracepoint" probably comes off as a wholly original and well-made murder mystery. Producers said the audience for "Broadchurch" was relatively small so they're not worried if those folks don't jump on the bandwagon. But if they do, producers promise the two series diverge.

"Gracepoint" will have 10 episodes; "Broadchurch" has eight. "Gracepoint" producers said more episodes will give them opportunities to explore more in depth some of the secondary characters. But will more episodes help or hurt? Seems like more red herrings won’t make the remake better.

"We start to veer from the ['Broadchurch'] storyline," said executive producer Dan Futterman. "We introduce new characters, potential suspects. And the town is still very much part of the show."

Producers promise the killer will be revealed by the end of season one and though Fox executives have said in the past the killer will be different on "Gracepoint" from "Broadchurch," producers were cagey.

"I don't want you to rule anybody out as a suspect," Mr. Futterman said. "We end in a very different place, which is both exciting for the first season and potentially exciting for a great second season as well."

Mr. Tennant said he was not contractually obligated to appear in this American remake in which he uses an American accent to play the same role.

"It is the same character and yet it's not," he said. "The spine of the story is the same and the spine of the two characters is the same but they're very different flesh on the bone."

Sick kids ‘Society’

Fox's "Red Band Society" (9 p.m. Wednesday starting Sept. 17) may be about kids and teens living in a hospital pediatric ward, but there won't be dying children on a weekly basis.

The series, a mashup of "The Breakfast Club" and "The Fault in our Stars" (with a hint of "Glee"), is based on a Spanish program but was also informed by showrunner Margaret Nagle's experience with her brother, who was in a coma for a year as a child.

"85 percent of all kids -- and pediatrics goes to age 24 -- recover so it's really about that time you spend in the hospital, how it changes you," Ms. Nagle said.

The arc of the show's first season is about Charlie (Griffin Gluck) -- also the name of Nagle's brother -- who seems likely to come out of his coma at the end of season one. Nagle said the generation coming up is less interested in the immortality of vampires in "Twilight" and more interested in mortality in stories like "The Fault in Our Stars."

"They're not afraid to embrace these things," Nagle said. "The way this show can really work is to go to that place."

She invoked the names of "My So-Called Life," "Freaks and Geeks" and "M*A*S*H" as touchstone series that inspired the tone of "Red Band Society."

In addition to a roster of newcomer teen actors, "Red Band" also stars Dave Annable ("Brothers and Sisters") as a doctor and Octavia Spencer ("The Help") as a nurse.

Channel surfing

HBO has cast Anthony Hopkins and Evan Rachel Wood have been cast in the pilot for a prospective series remake of the 1973 film “Westworld.” … Syfy continues its return to space-set shows with a series order for “Killjoys,” about interplanetary bounty hunters. Hannah John-Kamen, Aaron Ashmore (“Warehouse 13”) and Luke Macfarlane (“Brothers and Sisters”) will star in the 10-episode first season to air in 2015. … Disney Channel debuts the one-hour “Phineas and Ferb: Star Wars” at 9 p.m. Saturday featuring Phineas and Ferb alongside “Star Wars” characters during “Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope.”

A portion of this column originally appeared online in the Tuned In Journal blog. Post-Gazette TV writer Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Follow RobOwenTV at Twitter or on Facebook. You can reach Rob at 412-263-2582 or

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