Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the best indicator of massive popularity is the amount of tie-in merchandise. "Downton Abbey" mania has produced plenty of both, in the form of numerous spoofs and enough coffee mugs, replica cookware and T-shirts to fill Lady Mary's capacious closet to bursting.

"SNL" did a laugh-out-loud "promo" for the series as if it were running on Spike TV, calling the Dowager Countess "the chicken lady." A sendup on "The Colbert Report" had actual "Downton" cast members cooking meth à la "Breaking Bad." There was "Downton Arby's," in which everyone worked or was a customer at you-know-where, and a Jimmy Fallon impersonation. Even "Sesame Street" got in a lesson on gravity titled "Upside Downton Abbey."

"Downton"-connected Twitter hashtags indicate the minutiae that fascinate fans; for example: #obriensbangs.

Many related products have been less inspired, with "Free Bates" and "Kissing Cousins" T-shirts among the most distasteful (can you imagine even the downstairs staff in so lowly a garment? Carson would have a fit). An unofficial cookbook contains mouthwatering, if not entirely authentic, recipes. And the craft-sales website Etsy has been whipped into a clinging-to-Grantham-coattails frenzy, tacking "Downton Abbey" in front of everything from Edwardian-style jewelry to hand-painted tea sets in hopes of attracting the show's fans.

One shudders to think what the Dowager would have to say about all this crass commercialism -- "What is a T-shirt?"

Meanwhile, beyond the already planned fourth season, "Downton" mania has shown no signs of a-Bates-ing. NBC has hired Julian Fellowes to create a late-Victorian-era American series called "Gilded Age," and he's also pondering a prequel about the courtship of Lord and Lady Grantham.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046