'Downton' denizens return
Something about Downton Abbey died last year with Matthew Crawley. Oops - sorry if you didn't yet know about poor Matthew, but, honestly, how long must the rest of us keep quiet about it?
Let's make a deal: This is a review of Season Four, which begins its American broadcast Sunday night on PBS stations. It will be necessary to mention one or two events, but I promise to tread ever so lightly and somewhat unspecifically over the details. I have this unfortunate suspicion some fans will grow bored with the show this season and quietly excuse themselves from its elegant table - about when discussion turns to the Teapot Dome scandal in America.
Welcome back, then, to Downton Abbey, this weird, wonderful show that is really just a fancy prime-time soap opera from another land, a saga of how the occupants and employees of a fictional British estate deal with social changes in the 20th century, where poor Lady Mary Crawley (that hard soul disguised as a porcelain bird, played both gloweringly and glowingly by Michelle Dockery) spends the early part of Season 4 in a fog of mourning for her husband six months after his death in a motorcar crash. She's wearing more black than the help.
Soon enough - and goaded by the estate's butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) - Lady Mary realizes she must pick herself up and get on with life. In Season 4, where it's now 1922, Downton Abbey hews closely to its unstated motto: Keep frenetic and carry on. (And summon the suitors vying for Mary's broken heart. Form a line, lads.)
I'm as glad as anyone to have Downton Abbey back, if only for the vicarious pleasure it brings, but I'm also convinced the show is resigned to serve, at least in the United States, as the golden goose egg in the PBS tote bag. Plots will emerge and peter out; characters will come and go (and live or die) based on an actor's willingness to sign a contract (it was not that nice knowin' ya, Miss O'Brien). No matter what happens, Downton will not fall into ruin anytime soon - even though the fate of the estate is increasingly in question.
Don't get me wrong; this isn't a bad season. Except for a dismally protracted story line that involves (spoiler alert and trigger warning) a rape, there's more than enough to enjoy this time around. And compared to the dreadful Season Two (the World War I years) and the dolefully heavy events of Season Three, these new episodes come as close as any to recapturing Season One's knack for making the ultra-rarefied seem appealingly universal.
You will continue, with sick fun, to shout out dialogue for the characters mere seconds before they utter the lines themselves. Downton Abbey is one of those shows shielded from criticisms of predictability because predictability (meaning "reliability") is its hallmark, with occasional shockers thrown in to snap you out of your biscuit coma.
Worth noting: Producer Julian Fellowes and company are delivering sharper, tighter scripts. They've taken time to compare and contrast Lady Mary's grief with that of Matthew's mother, Isobel Crawley, played by Penelope Wilton, in which Wilton gets to do some of her finest and most nuanced work yet on the show - much of it alongside Maggie Smith's Violet, the dowager countess, who, true to form, dominates every scene she's in with one quip after another. It is Violet's response to grief (and a grieving household), as well as her advice to her family members through several forthcoming crises, that offers Downton's most surprising evolution this season. One can almost picture Smith storming into Fellowes' office and demanding that Violet be humanized a touch and spared from caricature. She is even forced to face some fears of her own.
Other characters, meanwhile, suffer on the back burner: Elizabeth McGovern (as Cora, the estate's countess), who once provided a lovely centrifugal force to the show, is now playing a kind of parody of Cora, wafting into rooms and sympathetically pursing her lips and tilting her head - and not much else. Two other key characters are sent packing on an overseas voyage, yet even with its success and presumably larger budget, Downton Abbey still never accompanies anyone on a big trip, unless they're going to war. The show is resolutely about that castle and what goes on in it and near it, with fleeting trips to London, where young cousin-in-heat Rose (Lily James) is still obsessed with jazz.
All you really need to know is this: Downton Abbey has settled into itself. It knows precisely what it wants to be, and it also knows that its fans don't come to it for provocative, groundbreaking storytelling or explosive surprises. Losing Matthew was hard enough.
Masterpiece: Downton Abbey
9 p.m. Sundays on WHYY TV12