LEWISTON — Diane Rabuano of Auburn spent part of Saturday sipping tea, nibbling on crust-free cucumber sandwiches and chatting about spoiled heiresses and conniving footmen.
“It makes it almost real,” she said.
For almost 90 minutes, she sat with about a dozen other fans of the PBS phenomenon “Downton Abbey” at the Lewiston Public Library. Together, they mused about the fussy, stiff-upper-lip Crawley family, their scrappy servants and the manor lifestyle. Then, they previewed the first hour of the British series’ fifth season, which premieres in the United States next month.
Rabuano soaked it in.
“I love England,” she said. “I’ve been to London a couple of times.”
She did her best to immerse herself in the 1920s-era, wearing a dress coat and scarf that hinted at the flapper look. She wanted to do better.
“I looked for a hat, and I just couldn’t find one,” she said.
Others did. People showed up in hats, scarves and frilly dresses. Robinson Eastman of Lewiston wore a tuxedo.
“They said costumes were encouraged, so I wanted to make it over the top,” said Paula Aldrich of Lewiston, who wore a head-to-toe outfit.
It’s the kind of fan outpouring that the TV show seemingly draws everywhere, said Jim Wilkins, major gift officer for Maine Public Broadcasting.
The show has proven to be the most popular TV show in PBS history.
“It’s critical for us, because it makes us unique due to the quality of the production,” Wilkins said. “And that comes from the writing, production and all other aspects.”
Its popularity draws from a wide audience with respect to age, he said. Though it has soap opera-like stories, many people cite the show’s historical sweep as a draw.
“You’re watching the slow slide down of this ruling class in Britain,” Wilkins said.
The first episodes took place in 1912, immediately following the sinking of the Titanic. As Season 5 begins, the setting is 1924 and the world has changed.
Wilkins arranged the Lewiston screening of the show only days ago. WGBH in Boston, which brings the show to the United States as part of its “Masterpiece Theater” series, allowed only five early screenings in Maine.
Wilkins read about Saturday’s Downton Tea Party and offered the sneak peek.
The episode set up the coming season, picking up on story lines including the eldest Crawley daughter’s romantic suitors, her younger sister’s secret child and a butler’s manipulation of a maid.
To Rabuano, who has attended “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” conventions, such stories are all part of the show’s appeal.
For a few minutes, she could put aside her worries and imagine someone else’s problems.
“It’s a way of escaping the real world,” she said. “That’s why I like things like this, and sci-fi. The real world is hard.”