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PBS at TCA, Day 1: From ‘willies’ to a ‘Free Bates’ campaign

A spoiler-filled "Downton Abbey" panel caps off the first day of the Television Critics Association press tour.

The Television Critics Association press tour, the semiannual gathering of journalists to preview the new and returning series premiering this fall, kicked off today with a look at the offerings from PBS.

During the executive session, PBS president Paula Kerger addressed the decision to fire “Market Warriors” host Fred Willard after his arrest on suspicion of engaging in a lewd act in a Hollywood theater last week. “Our concern really is that his circumstance would become a distraction to the series, which we’re hoping will have an ongoing presence on public television,” Kerger said. Because the series is currently in production, Kerger said they “needed to move fast” on their decision; “Antiques Roadshow” star Mark Walberg will take over hosting duties on “Market Warriors,” which, Kerger assured, will continue airing new episodes as scheduled.

Kerger also announced two new series: Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” a 14-hour documentary on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, set to air in 2014; and “Constitution USA with Peter Sagal,” chronicling the journey of the “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me” host as he searches for ways that the U.S. Constitution lives and works in modern America.

PBS’s most anticipated new drama, “Call the Midwife,” was responsible for the day’s most comical TCA Twitter hash tag. Based on the bestselling memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the series tells the story of Jenny Lee, a young midwife working with an order of nuns in the poorest area of London in the 1950s.

As for portraying childbirth realistically without appearing graphic, “it’s all about [camera] angles,” says series star Jessica Raine, who portrays Jenny. Several prosthetic newborns were also created as props. “They are really heavy, and we got one baby with a detachable willy so it could be a boy or a girl baby,” Raine admitted, immediately prompting the hash tag #detachablewillies.

The beautiful drama — which tallied 11.4 million viewers for its peak episode in the U.K., making it the highest rated BBC new drama debut on record — premieres in the States on Sept. 30.

The day’s big finale featured the cast and creator of the PBS megahit — and, as the network reminded critics with a sizzle reel full of parodies, pop culture phenomenon — “Downton Abbey.” Those in the packed ballroom were treated to a spoiler-filled trailer for Season 3, including a heated exchange between Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and fiancé Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens, not present on the panel), a magnificent battle of insults between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, also not present) and Martha Levinson (new cast member Shirley MacLaine), and a devastating admission by Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) to his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern).

Creator Julian Fellowes said Season 3 is “in a way, about the recovery from the war.” The world — and Downton Abbey itself — is in a massive state of change. He promises “laughs and tears.”

Plenty of those should be had in the storyline involving beloved valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), who is (falsely?) in prison for the murder of his ex-wife, while his current wife, housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), is determined to find evidence that sets him free. It turns out Anna isn’t the only one who wants to see Bates emancipated.

Bonneville, while commenting on Robert’s position in life (“his destiny was pre-determined. He was born to hand on his estate to the next generation”) suddenly stood and began ripping off his tie. He turned away from the audience and unbuttoned his shirt, turning back to reveal … a “Free Bates” t-shirt, to raucous applause — even from TV critics.

"Downton Abbey" Season 3 will premiere Jan. 6, 2013.

For full coverage from the Television Critics Association press tour, follow Amber on Twitter: @amberatmetro.

 
 
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