By Mary Milliken
BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - It is hard to say who will grieve more for Matthew Crawley when the next season of the wildly popular television show "Downton Abbey" airs: his on-screen widow Lady Mary or the legions of fans of the show.
At least the fans can rest assured. Several eligible bachelors will swoop in on the mourning Mary and her English estate in Season Four, producers and cast members said on Tuesday, offering U.S. critics a tease of what lies ahead.
"Downton Abbey" has become one of the most talked about television series around the world. In the United States alone, the story of a fictional aristocratic English family a century ago has become the most watched drama ever on the PBS network.
The British show has won nine Emmys and is nominated for another 13 this year, including for best drama series.
The decision to leave by actor Dan Stevens, who played Matthew, forced writer Julian Fellowes to send him to an early death in the final minutes of Season Three, just as Mary had given birth to their first child.
Spoiler alert. In a clip shown to a meeting with the Television Critics Association, Season Four (which airs in the United States in January) opens with Mary finding it hard to bond with the baby. She sees Matthew every time she looks at the baby's face, said actress Michelle Dockery, who plays Mary.
Cast members were guarded in how much they wanted to reveal. But Dockery did say that Mary will have "more than one love interest," one of whom is an old family friend and "all quite handsome." Executive producer Gareth Neame spoke of "some eligible bachelors" descending on Downton.
The clip also shows Mary's grandmother, played by Maggie Smith, encouraging her to start managing the estate alongside her brother-in-law Tom Branson, also a widower.
Despite a good relationship, Dockery brushed aside speculation that Lady Mary and Branson, once the family's driver, would form a romantic couple.
Mary will face some competition for attention from her unlucky-in-love sister Lady Edith, who Neame said will have a "very active year."
Edith, played by Laura Carmichael, continues to work as a journalist, spends more time in London and enjoys the modern ways of the Roaring Twenties.
"I like to think about her as the Carrie Bradshaw of the Twenties," said Carmichael, referring to the popular columnist and woman-about-Manhattan in the TV show "Sex and the City."
Dockery said she hopes no more cast members leave the show and "as far as we know, we are all doing Series Five next year."
Prodded by critics to say how long "Downton Abbey" will run, Neame said it won't run to World War II, which is still 18 years away, "but I think the show has a lot further to go."
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)