Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson from the TV series Downton Abbey.
The Dowager Countess will be delighted. The third series of the British costume drama Downton Abbey opened to a record audience of nearly eight million viewers in the US, the biggest ever audience for its stateside broadcaster, PBS.
Downton Abbey was watched by 7.9 million people on Sunday night, nearly double the 4.2 million who watched the opening episode of series two.
The season premiere, which featured the wedding of Matthew and Lady Mary Crawley, delivered public service broadcasting network PBS its highest ever ratings, making it the second most-watched network in its timeslot, beaten only by CBS.
Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, left, and Shirley MacLaine.
Downton's big numbers came in spite of a controversial decision by PBS to air the Julian Fellowes drama more than three months after it screened in the UK.
It is a sign of Downton Abbey's US appeal, because PBS's primetime shows are typically watched by around two million viewers.
The first episode of season three also featured the first appearance by Oscar-winning US actor Shirley MacLaine.
Series three finished in the UK at the end of last year and was followed by a Christmas special which was deemed lacklustre by some critics but had a consolidated audience of more than 10 million viewers.
Paula Kerger, PBS president and chief executive, said: "Downton Abbey continues to enthrall audiences nationwide, and this season is especially riveting with the addition of Shirley MacLaine to the cast and the lively interaction between her and Maggie Smith.
"I'm so pleased that audiences have returned to Downton Abbey to continue to enjoy some of the best drama on television."
Winner of seven Emmy awards in the US, Downton is nominated for three awards at the Golden Globes this Sunday (Monday AEST).
Guardian News & Media