Downton Abbey: TV Review
Sundays at 9 p.m. on PBS, beginning Jan. 5
Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern
The British series goes into season four as soapy as ever, but Julian Fellowes' characters are well-drawn fan favorites, even when he makes them do dubious deeds.
Fans of Downton Abbey are a loyal lot. Those that weren't shaken off by the dubious plotting of season two came back with joy and anticipation for season three (which was better). They got through Mr. Bates in jail, American relatives, financial crises and Mrs. Patmore in love, plus the marriage of Lady Mary and Matthew and Mary's pregnancy, among a litany of other threads. Which means they will watch no matter where the plot goes. They float on the bubbles of this soap like few other fan bases.
Many of the core Downton fans are not the type to read spoilers when the season airs in England first, nor are they keen on much industry news, so the death of Sybil was a shocker, topped only by the accident that kills Matthew.
And yet, by the end of the third season, Downton Abbey's pattern of creating drama upstairs and downstairs in myriad (sometimes pointless, but always soapy) ways had become more fine-tuned formula than creative drama for those less loyal (ahem).
And so the beginning of a fourth season (and a fifth already approved) isn't the exciting news it may have been in the past. But then again, I've certainly come to appreciate how Downton Abbey hooks its loyals (and royals, we now know) with the aforementioned formula. That is, once you don't expect Downton to be playing the same game as the top-tier, most challenging dramas, it's easier to revel in what it does best and accept that as good enough.
Very clearly, it's the characters, yes? From the Dowager Countess to Lady Mary to Mr. Bates and his Anna, fans fall for the well-drawn, well-acted bunch and therefore put up with whatever trifles writer and creator Julian Fellowes dreams up for them. And he's never at a lack for that, though forays into cousins/burn victims and such are better avoided.
The fourth season picks up in 1922, six months after Matthew's car accident has left Lady Mary a widow with a baby. Of course, of all the Lady Marys, she's the Lady Mary-est, so you know immediately that her descent into unhappiness will make her cruel, distant and perhaps even more pale (which, in fact, is a great state for her to be in dramatically -- the withering asides are choice -- and I wish she had gone the whole season in grief, but it's not to be).
On the plus side, if you're a fan of twists, season four looks to be especially good for you. Each year Fellowes tries to bring "change" from the outside world onto the doorstep of the Abbey, but this series being what's often described as "posh porn" -- a look at how the very wealthy of a certain time handled the annoyances of the real world -- that change comes very slowly. After all, part of the appeal seems to be escapism for Americans who want a costume drama mixed with our weird fascination with the British class system. So if you're hoping the good folks from the village rise up with pitchforks and torches to burn Downton to the ground, you'll have to wait at least until the seventh season.
I found the early going in season four to be predictably slow -- Downton Abbey is remarkably slow for how much Machiavellian shenanigans are about. And yet, there's something reassuring (he says, begrudgingly) about how Robert Crawley is so very much in love with being the Earl of Grantham and how actor Hugh Bonneville just absolutely owns that role. So, too, is it nice to see Lady Edith be less of a loser and Molesley continue to be one. In a nutshell, it's that very attraction -- familiar characters acting with familiarity and only the slipperiest of soap schemes to throw them off course -- that fuels this series. It's not particularly elite anymore, but it's incredibly efficient (who among you wants less of Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess? None of you, of course, and rightly so). Even if you have a low tolerance for Cora's simpering or Isobel's meddlesome nature, there's always the furrowed fussiness of Mr. Carson and the sweetness of Mrs. Hughes to save you (and besides, what if they ever get together -- you wouldn't want to miss that now would you?).
Ultimately, that's why even fans who are not super loyal keep coming back -- there's comfort in the familiar with Downton Abbey. Even if Fellowes manipulates the characters in ways that are, shall we say, manipulative, he drew them so well in the first place that you can't fault him too much.