TV’s Best, Classy, and Classics Coming in the New Year

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The classy denizens of “Downton Abbey.”

It is the 40th anniversary of PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre and the classy show’s executive producer Rebecca Eaton is happy to have her “beloved” Downton Abbey series back on this season’s schedule. “It’s a hit,” Eaton proudly says, and the fans of the show can rejoin the denizens of Downton Abbey as their glittering culture is on the precipice of cataclysmic change, thrown into the tumult of World War I. It is an exquisite historical drama that follows the lords and ladies as well as their spirited servants who inhabit the estate. Downton Abbey, Season 2 returns Jan. 8, and airs every Sunday through Feb. 19 on PBS. For everyone who enjoyed the pageantry of the royal Will and Kate wedding last year, this is your cup of tea.

Putting the posh realism in the production about a bygone era is Gareth Neame, of NBC Universal International, managing director in the UK. He produces Downton Abbey, which he also created with writer Julian Fellowes. Neame is an old friend of Masterpiece, having done hundreds of hours of co-productions for them. He knows the UK territory and is familiar with the location of Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey is filmed. “This is a quintessentially British genre, this sort of country house, historical drama, with Julian Fellowes’ outstanding writing,” Neame told me, explaining that the castle was designed by the House of Parliament architect.

Drawing you into their beautiful world is the stunning cast, including Harry Potter’s Maggie Smith as Violet, Countess of Grantham; Elizabeth McGovern playing Cora, Lady Grantham; Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, plus Dan Stevens as her lover Matthew Crawley; and the delicious Siobhan Finneran as the troublemaking servant O’Brien, who everybody loves to hate.

The clothes on the series are amazing; even the simplest costumes are very lavish and detailed, and that has created some challenges for the production. Neame noted that the women especially change into five or six different outfits in any one day. “That’s what they did, these aristocrats who had no function whatsoever. So the women particularly spent most of their day dressing and undressing, changing into something else for breakfast, for tea, for dinner. That makes it very difficult in editing. Sometimes you want to move scenes around, and you’re constricted by them being dressed for tea, not lunch.”

It was a fascinating era that producer Eaton loves to share, and she also had great news to share that Viking River Cruises has just joined Masterpiece as a sponsor. “We could not be more thrilled with this company, which is the foremost luxury river cruise company in the world. They sponsor trips in Europe, in the Far East, in Southeast Asia, India, and Russia. And their people are our people. Their clientele so matches the Masterpiece demographic that we are truly a marriage made in heaven, and delighted with this partnership.” Kudos to Viking for giving us the best from the Brits.

Now for an American classic: The Miss America Pageant. Brooke Burke-Charvet is co-hosting the 2012 Miss America Pageant with The Bachelor’s Chris Harrison. It will air live on ABC from the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, on Saturday, Jan. 14, at 9 p.m. The lovely Dancing with the Stars co-host and past winner will be back on the show’s season 14 when it premieres March 19 on ABC with a new set of mirror-ball trophy hopefuls.

Are you ready for more classics? In the new year, there will be a double dose of Betty White on NBC. The beloved actress turns 90 on Jan. 17, and NBC will mark the big occasion with a 90-minute special. Betty White’s 90th Birthday: A Tribute to America’s Golden Girl will air on Monday, Jan. 16, at 8 p.m. And following the celebration will be a preview of Betty’s upcoming NBC series Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, a crazy sketch show that will also feature hidden camera pranks.

Ed Asner and Betty White will reunite on TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland. The former Mary Tyler Moore Show co-stars will tape an episode in February and it is scheduled to air next summer. Betty had a ball playing the man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens who was always trying to nail Ed’s crusty old character Lou Grant. So will there be romantic sparks between them decades later? We hope so.

Hot in Cleveland is a sitcom that has been featuring a bunch of great comedy stars from the past. Among those making appearances so far have been Mary Tyler Moore, Carl Reiner, Tim Conway, Hal Linden, Bonnie Franklin, Juliet Mills, John Mahoney, and Dave Foley, with more to come in the new season, including Asner.

Speaking of Ed Asner, he’ll be guest-starring on Hawaii Five-O, reprising the same character he played on the original series back in 1975. And the new episode of the CBS crime show will use footage from the 36-year-old episode. Like vintage wine, Asner has only gotten better as time goes by.

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