Ellen Gray: Addictive British soap 'Downton Abbey' returns for 2nd season



I HAVEN'T slept well lately, having spent a good chunk of the holidays watching the second season of "Downton Abbey," only to discover that those fiends at PBS' "Masterpiece Classic" had withheld the Feb. 19 finale from critics, leaving us as much in the dark as our readers about the fates of some of the addictive soap's most compelling characters.

(Yes, I know, it aired in Britain over Christmas, but I'm not going to peek. And neither should you.)

It's weird, honestly, to be waking up from dreams of "Downton," considering that when I'm awake, I'm at least mildly critical of the second coming of a show that was originally intended to be only a miniseries. But then, as "Masterpiece" executive producer Rebecca Eaton noted last summer, it "was broadcast here [in the U.S.] in January to 13 million people, a million of whom saw it online, [and] has gone on to win awards and not receive one bad review ever from anyone."

Indeed, the worst thing I could think of to say about the original "Downton Abbey" was that it sometimes felt as if it "had been custom-designed for those of us for whom period romance is mother's milk, studded as it is with plucky heroines, accidental heirs and scheming dowagers, with just enough history thrown in to make the melodrama seem highbrow."

I thought it "delicious fun" then, and I still do, though strung over a longer period - and against the unfun background of the First World War - the second series, as they call it in Britain, shows signs of strain, as creator Julian Fellowes throws one obstacle after another between his sets of star-crossed lovers (some upstairs, some down).

The good news is that the indomitable Maggie Smith is back as the dowager countess, who not only gets all the best lines, but also knows what to do with them.

"I hate Greek drama, where everything happens offstage," she says at one point, as if putting her finger squarely on the very un-Greek appeal of "Downton," which seldom shuts out its audience.

But if you howled, as I did, at the not-exactly-happy ending to last winter's tale, you may also be counting the hours until Sunday's return.

"An unresolved story line will stay with you perhaps longer than one with some sort of neat, satisfactory resolution, you know," Dan Stevens said in an interview last summer in Beverly Hills.

Stevens, whose accidental-heir character, Matthew Crawley, delayed viewer gratification by refusing to marry his cousin, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), in last year's finale, loved that their story was left unfinished, and not just because it led to another season.

That undone romance was "like many things in life," he said. And as for viewers, "it agitates them, it stays with them and they keep thinking about it 12 months on, which I think is great," he said.

What he also thought was great: the international reaction to a veddy British period drama.

Besides the U.S., where, according to Eaton, "Downton Abbey" helped raise the ratings of "Masterpiece" by more than 40 percent from the previous year, "we've had crazy success all over the place: Spain - it's like one of the biggest foreign shows in Spain for years and years and years - Australia, and, you know, all over the world," Stevens said.

Was he dubbed in Spain?

"I was dubbed in Spain. By the same actor who dubs Brad Pitt, so I'm told. I'm deeply flattered," he said.

It would be giving away too much of even what little I know about the ending to say whether Stevens (and Pitt) makes it that far, but co-star Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Mary's mother, Cora, countess of Grantham, suggested last summer that this season's finale might be a little more final.

"It brings the story more to a close than it did the first season," McGovern said. "But there is room for Chapter 3 [which has since been ordered]. But a lot of the stories do resolve themselves."

Hope so. I could really use the sleep.


'House of Lies'

Showtime, I'm convinced, is the "Jerry Springer Show" of the too-good-for-daytime-TV set.

In its array of sympathetic serial killers, pot-pushing soccer moms and pill-popping healers, we find a standard against which even the most damaged of us can convince ourselves we're normal.

And if not normal, at least potentially lovable.

Which brings us to Marty Kaan (rhymes with "con"), the management consultant played by Don Cheadle in Showtime's latest genre-bending comedy, "House of Lies," which premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday after the much-anticipated Season 2 launch of "Shameless."

An entertaining scamp who, if ours were a different sort of country, might find his head on a pike beside those of the CEOs with whom he plots against the 99 percent, Marty's as Showtime a contrivance as you're going to meet, from his cross-dressing young son (Donis Leonard Jr.), who dreams of playing Sandy in "Grease," to his shark of an ex-wife (Dawn Olivieri), next to whom he wakes up, naked, at the top of Sunday's premiere.

Kristen Bell ("Veronica Mars") plays a colleague who understands Marty a little too well and Glynn Turman ("In Treatment") his father, who's still hoping Marty will eventually understand himself.

Created by Matthew Carnahan ("Dirt") and based on a book by Martin Kihn, "Lies" is cynical enough to make "Up in the Air" look like "Once Upon a Time," but it's a stylish, sometimes witty cynicism. In a variation on the overused voice-over, Marty gets to freeze action and break the fourth wall (often using the opportunity to explain things that might easily have been understood contextually).

Best of all, "House of Lies" moves so quickly, "Dexter" fans might not even notice until it's too late that theirs are the bodies strapped to the table - and that Marty's the guy wielding the sharp instrument.


'The Firm'

NBC, it seems, does not believe in happily ever after.

It's been long enough since I read John Grisham's 1991 best-seller The Firm and saw Tom Cruise star in the 1993 movie that I needed Wikipedia to remind me how each ended.

I probably shouldn't have bothered.

As "The Firm" makes a comeback this weekend in a two-hour series premiere (9 p.m. Sunday, NBC 10), it's clear that, like "Prime Suspect," the network's merely attached the name of a long-ago success to a show that has little or nothing to do with the original project.

Unfortunately, unlike the now-canceled "Suspect," the Maria Bello drama that became a pretty good cop show on its own merits (and whose 10 p.m. Thursday time slot "The Firm" will be moving into next week), NBC's version of "The Firm" is shaky at best.

Josh Lucas ("The Lincoln Lawyer") stars as Mitch McDeere. Just 10 years have passed since his seduction by a law firm with ties to the mob landed Mitch and his wife ("Deadwood's" Molly Parker) in witness protection. He's a father now and has finally reclaimed his old identity, apparently believing that a contract on his life died with the mobster who made it.

As if.

Since TV shows are supposed to last longer than feature films - it doesn't always work out, but it's good to have goals - Mitch will apparently be looking over his shoulder for bad guys every week while handling a closed-end case or two.

So far I've seen no reason to order further surveillance on this one.


Send email to graye@phillynews.com or follow my updates from the Television Critics Association's winter meetings in Pasadena at www.ellengray.tv.