The staples of the series were still there -- the gorgeous interiors and exteriors of the stately home gleamed, the starchy butler Carson disapproved of something being done by one of the aristocratic Crawley sisters, the snippy ladies' maid O'Brien looked down her nose at a cheeky new member of the below-stairs staff, and the relationship between Matthew Crawley, the man set to inherit Downton Abbey, and Lady Mary, an aristocrat with a scandal in her past, looked as complicated as ever.
But in interviews conducted before the panel, members of the 'Downton' cast said the war lent a new sense of urgency to the country house drama, which returns Jan. 8.
"We start the new series pretty much in the thick of World War 1," said Dan Stephens, who plays Matthew, the distant relative who found out in the first season that he would inherit Lord Grantham's estate and fortune one day.
"I think the bar is raised in the second [season], because the stakes are so much higher," said Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary Crawley, the eldest of Lord Grantham's three daughters.
I'll post much more from Stephens, Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern (who plays Lady Mary's mother, Cora, Countess of Grantham) and Siobhan Finneran (O'Brien) closer to the show's return, but I couldn't resist sharing a few details about the new season with my fellow 'Downton' addicts. Don't worry, the first part of the post is spoiler-free; you won't come across major plot points by accident. (By the way, for a slideshow of photos from the new season, look here.)
Before we get to observations from the actors, here are the details on season 2. First, when the second season of airs in the U.S., it will consist of seven installments and it will contain every minute of what will air in the U.K. this fall (the first season of 'Downton Abbey,' which is available in its original form on DVD and Netflix, was trimmed by 20 minutes or so in total, so that the show would fit into PBS' Masterpiece slot).
"The British episodes 1 and 2 will be episode 1 for us [in the U.S.], and we're combining near the end as well," executive producer Rebecca Eaton said. "But every frame that they see, you'll see."
The producers also said Sunday that, as was the case with the first season, the second season will take place over a year or two (and the final episode of the season will be centered on a Christmas holiday).
"Obviously, if this show continues to run in a way we hadn't quite expected, then we may have to slow down with the history a little bit," executive producer Gareth Neame said. "But... we burn through a similar kind of time line."
But when we meet the characters again, they'll be right in the middle of World War 1, an event that doesn't just change their lives -- it begins to destabilize the class boundaries and barriers to mobility that had long defined English society.
"Everything is so accelerated" when the show returns, Stephens said when I interviewed him. "You can see the chaos that's infiltrating everyone's life, and everyone is dealing with it in subtly different ways."
"Gareth Neame put it very well the other day -- he said, 'The tragedy is no longer the missing snuffbox -- it's a missing arm or leg or life,'" McGovern said.
Cora, who's usually calm and collected, is unsettled when the show returns, McGovern said. "It takes her a while to acclimate herself, and I think she's very derailed by the situation," McGovern said. "In the first couple of episodes, she's just lost."
Still, one constant throughout the series is the bond between Lady Mary and Matthew, who started off on the wrong foot in season 1 but who came to care about each other deeply. "That spark has really never burned out," Dockery said.
All the actors said that the show still mixes dry comedy with the soapier elements and the more dramatic story lines. Carson's efforts to make sure that life at Downton Abbey doesn't change too much -- despite an influx of new residents and other upheavals -- is "very amusing," according to Stephens. "There's still some humor, and Maggie Smith [who plays Lord Grantham's mother] gets the killer line in every scene," he added.
The next part of this post contains more in-depth information about season 2, which was mostly gleaned the interviews with the cast (and a bit from the TCA panel). Don't read on if you don't want to know some details about the show's next season.
* The new season is set in 1916, and in the first episode, we'll see scenes of Matthew's war experiences in France (he's leading men in the Somme when season 2 begins). As you can see from the season 2 cast photo above, Lord Grantham is also in the Army, though when the season begins, he's still living at Downton Abbey and doesn't appear to be on active duty.
* When the show returns, Matthew and Lady Mary haven't seen each other for two years.
* Downton Abbey is eventually turned into a convalescent hospital for officers recovering from the war, which brings "hundreds" of men into the house, according to McGovern.
* "Without giving too much away, [Matthew] doesn't escape the war entirely without injury," Stephens said.
* Early in season 2, we find out that Matthew has a fiance, Lavinia (Zoe Boyle), who actually gets on well with Lady Mary. She still has feelings for Matthew, but she can see that Lavinia is good for him, Dockery said.
* The entail situation, i.e., the fact that Matthew will inherit Downton Abbey because Cora didn't produce a male heir, isn't as big of an issue in season 2, but Lavinia may have some hesitation about becoming the lady of the manor in the future.
* Lady Sibyl Crawley becomes a Red Cross nurse (Dockery and Stephens said Jessica Brown-Findlay, the actress who plays Sibyl, prepared by reading 'A Testament of Youth,' Vera Brittain's fascinating account of her life as a sheltered, upper middle class young woman who became a World War 1 nurse and was radically changed by those experiences).
* Lady Mary herself has moved on -- she has a new love interest, Sir Richard Carlyle, a newspaper tycoon played by 'Game of Thrones' actor Iain Glen. "It seems to be a union of convenience with Richard Carlyle. He's very practical, he's very rich, he's very famous in society," Dockery said.
* The fact that Lady Mary had a scandalous encounter with a Turkish diplomat who died in her bed will still be a problem for her in season 2.
* There's a new maid in the house, Ethel (Amy Nuttall), who has fanciful dreams of becoming a movie star one day. Not surprisingly, O'Brien finds her "a bit dippy," according to Finneran.
* Gwen, the maid who nurtured dreams of moving out of service and into an office job, won't be returning in the second season.
* There are complications in the personal life of Bates, Lord Grantham's valet.
* O'Brien and Thomas are still friends, but she feels a lot of guilt about what she did to Cora (you'll recall that O'Brien's actions caused Cora to lose her baby, who would have been the heir to Downton had he lived). Finneran said O'Brien "softens" a bit this season, but she doesn't change too much. Still, she shows compassion to Lang (Cal Macaninch), a new footman who has returned from the war suffering from "shell shock." "He seems to be doing well, but he's actually not," Finneran said.
* The influx of new residents in the house makes for some, shall we say, unusual relationships (unusual for that time, anyway). "There are a few officers who interact with the family and with the maids," Stephens said. "There's a little bit of 'Upstairs, Downstairs' going on."
* The final episodes of the season take place after World War 1 ends, Neame said.
* "In this series, people will live. People will die. Marriages will be made. Babies will be born," Eaton said. Of course, she wouldn't say who'd live or die, or who'd have a baby. And that's good, because I don't want to know any more until I can see the new season. With that, I'll go back to watching season 1 on Netflix. Again.
Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.