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JAN
8
3 YEARS

Review: 'Downton Abbey' Returns as Great as Ever

A few soapier moments don't dilute overall brilliance.

Downton Abbey
Courtesy of Masterpiece

Downton Abbey, one of the great melodramas of the modern television age, returns for its much-anticipated second season on PBS tonight at 9 p.m. with a two-hour premiere. That is pretty much all any Downton Abbey fan needs to hear (and doubtless already knows) because there’s almost nothing that could dissuade them from watching.

The acclaimed, Emmy-winning drama was one of the biggest surprises of 2011 and was a fascinating subject of exactly why on earth the costume drama attracted millions of people to Masterpiece on PBS. How could an English period piece about class structure and stately romance hook Americans? What was it about masters and servants that enthralled a nation? Despite dismissive suggestions that Downton Abbey was just a fabulous soap opera cooked up by Julian Fellowes, no pinpoint answer of any accuracy was ever given.

What we do know is that Masterpiece on PBS suddenly had the hottest show on television outside of Mad Men or Breaking Bad and that was, let’s not kid ourselves, a bit of a shock with the series’ lack of sex, violence or action of any note. What hooked everyone was a fantastic web of stories about love and class wrapped in superb, nuanced dialog, exquisite detail in both location and costume, and wonderful acting throughout. It was like Americans suddenly concerned themselves with manners and being proper above all else.

Season 2, which will unfold over seven weeks and 10 hours, finds things in drastic flux. In the two years since we last saw Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), they navigate not only the future of Downton Abbey but the loves and challenges of their children Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) and Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown-Findlay), World War I has arrived to shake up everyone’s world – including those at the insular, privileged Downton Abbey. Yes, change isn’t just in the air, it’s in the Abbey.

Matthew (Dan Stevens) is at the front and engaged to Lavinia (Zoe Boyle), which seems a crushing blow to Mary (though God knows she had her chances). If Downton Abbey traffics in anything it’s the regret about situation – and all through Season 2 you can sense the regret in Mary’s every action. Edith finally finds distraction from her bitterness and desire to make Mary miserable and young Sybil finds a purpose beyond luxury and it hints at the broader world changes to come.

Downstairs the flux is no less expansive. Scheming Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is no match for the horrors of war; the innocent footman William (Thomas Howes) is off to war soon and willingly; the chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) keeps up his misguided pursuit of Sybil while his political activism grows. Most important of all, Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) tighten the love affair that grips most viewers at the most vulnerable part of their heart, but suffer (of course!) problems as Bates’ evil wife Vera (Maria Doyle Kennedy) appears to keep them from happiness.

And isn’t that really the core of Downton Abbey? Fellowes creates such longing in all the characters for something – love, happiness, a better life – that seems so difficult for them to attain while simultaneously riling up the viewing audience in a desire to see those elements attained. That may be the secret in the soap – the characters are so beautifully and thoroughly rendered that we, as viewers, are caught up in their lives. Few series make you care about everyone involved to the extent that Downton Abbey does (and yes, that includes the bitter, conniving O’Brien, played exquisitely by Siobhan Finneran).

And it should go without saying that Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played impeccably and deliciously by Maggie Smith, remains one of the most enjoyable characters in the cast.

Fellowes is bolstered by the profound level of the aforementioned audience commitment and he’s lucky to have it in Season 2, when he periodically hits a few all-too-soapy plot holes. It’s hard to fault him for pressing down on the melodrama too firmly when he’s made two countries swoon so hard for such well-drawn characters, but just be aware that there are times in Season 2 where you’ll think events are a bit far-fetched or that characters should speak instead of remaining silent or think before talking at all (thus conveniently inching along the drama). But those are minor complaints in a season that will undoubtedly satiate the die-hard lovers of this strangely addictive costume drama.

Best yet, there’s a third 10-episode season of Downton Abbey in the works, set to start filming in February and set in 1920. It should air on PBS roughly in a year from now, when fans will no doubt have the first two seasons sitting on the shelf in DVD form.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine