Lynette Rice
December 30, 2011 AT 05:00 AM EST

When Downton Abbey took home six Emmys, including one for best mini-series, last September, reaction came in the form of surprise and confusion: What was this throwback period piece about an aristocratic family and its servants?

It’s only PBS’ most addictive love story/historical drama/costume porn since 1981’s Brideshead Revisited and Upstairs, Downstairs, the 1971 series that inspired Downton. About 5 million viewers watched the show’s four episodes — which followed the lives and loves of the family living in the titular British estate and the staff that serves them — when they aired on PBS’ Masterpiece in early 2011. ”People who discovered it embraced it as their own because it was harder to find and not shoved down your throat,” says Elizabeth McGovern, who stars as Downton‘s Cora Crawley, the lady of the house. ”That’s very gratifying.” Though it had originally been conceived as a miniseries, Downton‘s runaway success, both here and in the U.K. (where it now stands as the most popular drama of the last eight years), earned it a second season, with a third set to film in February.

To kick off season 2, EW was granted access to the Abbey (actually Highclere Castle in Berkshire), where the action has jumped two years to 1916. Meet all the main characters here, then ee the full on-the-set gallery here.

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