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‘Downton Abbey,’ ‘The Walking Dead’ - how to catch up on TV’s hot shows

Steven Yeun left Andrew Lincoln right try blend with zombie populatiscene from 'The Walking Dead.' | AP Photo/AMC

Steven Yeun, left, and Andrew Lincoln, right, try to blend in with the zombie population in a scene from "The Walking Dead." | AP Photo/AMC

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Updated: January 15, 2013 6:12AM

The holidays are the perfect time to catch up with friends, family and, most importantly, TV.

Make the most of your time off and the lousy winter weather by getting up to speed on some of the buzziest shows before they’re back with new episodes early next year.

Here are five series worth watching and how you can hop aboard the bandwagon this holiday season:

‘Downton Abbey’

Why: Set in the early 20th century as Britain’s class structure began to implode, PBS’ period drama follows the ups and downs of the noble Crawley family and the (mostly) loyal staff who wait on them in their Yorkshire estate. It may sound stodgy and slow, but this well-paced soap is the ideal blend of modern, multi-character storytelling and Edwardian-era tradition. The sharp writing is often laugh-out-loud funny, especially when the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith) slings the zingers. “Downton’s” seven-episode sophomore season ended in February and ranked as PBS’ most-watched “Masterpiece” series on record. Highly anticipated season three, which has already aired across the pond, starts Stateside Jan. 6.

How: WTTW-Channel 11 broadcasts a “Downton Abbey” season-one marathon from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, followed by part one of season two from 5 to 10 p.m. Catch the last half of season two from 7 to 10 p.m. on Dec. 23.

‘The Walking Dead’

Why: If you’ve been ignoring this pop-culture phenomenon because you don’t like zombies, I implore you: Give it a chance. It’s so much more than a bloody horror show. Based on Robert Kirkman’s comic book series by the same name, “Walking Dead” features a ragtag group of survivors led by sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) as they struggle to adapt in their newfound dystopia, fighting off hungry corpses and fellow humans. December’s midseason finale drew a whopping 15.2 million viewers in one night. The AMC hit made history this fall when it became the first cable program to beat every entertainment series — on broadcast and cable — in the key 18- to 49-year-old demo. The second half of the stellar third season picks up Feb. 10.

How: What better way to ring in the new year than a zombie apocalypse? The basic-cable net unleashes its “Walking Dead” marathon at 8 a.m. Dec. 31 and wraps it up at 4:30 a.m. Jan. 2. (Each of the 27 episodes to date will be aired; some will be shown twice.) The marathon is bookended by the series’ stellar premiere, “Days Gone Bye,” one of the most compelling TV pilots ever made.

‘Arrested Development’

Why: Some shows get whacked with the cancellation ax well before their time. That was the case with Fox’s critically acclaimed, Emmy-winning comedy series about the disgraced Bluth clan, which ended its three-season run in 2006. The enviable ensemble starred Jason Bateman as put-upon Michael Bluth, whose dysfunctional family tree included eccentric relatives played by comedic heavyweights David Cross and Will Arnett, to name a few. Now, a decade after its debut, “Arrested Development” will be back this spring for a fourth season airing exclusively on Netflix, the subscription service that streams video over the Internet to TVs, computers and tablets, among other devices. The new season will consist of at least 10 episodes available simultaneously. (Thanks to a plethora of material amassed by creator Mitch Hurwitz, there could be as many as 15 episodes, reported this week.)

How: All 53 previously aired episodes can be streamed via Netflix. (If you’re not a Netflix subscriber, sign up for a one-month free trial.) Netflix competitor Hulu offers “Arrested Development’s” first and longest season at no cost; you’ll have to subscribe to Hulu Plus (one-week free trial) to watch the full series run. The three-season DVD bundle sells on Amazon for less than $40 — way cheaper than buying individual episodes from iTunes, for example.

‘Game of Thrones’

Why: Winter isn’t just coming, it’s here. Bone up on HBO’s mythology-drenched fantasy series before season three begins its bloody, bawdy reign March 31. Based on the “Song of Ice and Fire” novels by Northwestern University journalism grad George R.R. Martin, “Game of Thrones” is an epic tale of the quest for power in a faraway land full of direwolves and dragons, White Walkers and wildlings. Beneath its big-budget, fantasy elements lurks the very human stories of family, greed, betrayal and vengeance. And sex. Lots of sex.

How: Season one is available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video, but you’re going to need an HBO subscription to get season two — or be willing to break the law. “Game of Thrones” is one of the, if not the, most-pirated shows of 2012. The premium pay-cable net currently has both seasons available on-demand and via HBO Go, a streaming service that lets subscribers watch on their computers, tablets and smartphones (as well as some TVs). Season one can be purchased on DVD; season two hits stores Feb. 19.


Why: Prodigy Lena Dunham’s droll take on post-collegiate cluelessness proved to be one of the most polarizing TV comedies of the year, producing plenty of passionate fans, equally passionate haters and five Emmy nominations. “Girls” is a brutally poignant, occasionally toe-curling depiction of four twentysomething friends floundering their way through life in New York. Think “Sex and the City,” for realsies. The HBO series kicks off its sophomore season Jan. 13.

How: The 10-episode first season is available to HBO subscribers on-demand and via the premium cable net’s streaming service HBO Go. The season one DVD went on sale earlier this month. HBO2 will air all 10 episodes back-to-back from 3 to 8 p.m. Jan. 13.

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