Expect 'Downton Abbey' to spend more time on Mary's (Michelle Dockery) suitors than her son.
(Photo: Nick Briggs, Carnival Film and Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE)
By Robert Bianco
Once again, to the manor borne.
To be sure, as often happens with regular visits to favorite haunts, this year's trip can't match the unalloyed joys of the first encounter. Staff turnover has led to a slip in standards, cracks have appeared in the plaster and a few of the people you once found so beguiling are beginning to get on your nerves.
Compared with most choices on your TV grid, of course, Masterpiece's returning Downton Abbey is still a recommended stop, a place filled with witty conversations, luxe accommodations and beautiful people in equally beautiful clothes behaving in amusingly ghastly (and sometimes annoyingly noble) fashion. You may not completely love this fourth vacation away from the 21st century, but lingering affection should more than carry you through.
We pick up Sunday six months after last season's shocking surprise, with Mary (Michelle Dockery) andIsobel (Penelope Wilton) reeling from Matthew's death and the household in a panic over the unexpected departure of Miss O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran, whose tartness is much missed). Matthew's death has once again thrown the estate's finances into an inheritance-law mess - not to mention what it's done to Mary's social possibilities and always prickly temperament.
As you may have heard, Mary will once again be courted; it's one of the season's major running plot points. But not yet, and not before a push from Tom (Allen Leech), whose own love life may be in flux, and Violet (the incomparable Maggie Smith).
Otherwise - aside from the troublesome addition of what may be the least interesting regular character the show has ever introduced, young Rose (Lily James) - all seems much as before. The show's twin upstairs/downstairs marriages, Robert and Cora and Anna and Bates, start off solidly happy; Violet remains an unending source of cutting humor and dowager wisdom; and Edith still insists on chasing after romances that are star-crossed at best. And then there's Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore, who continue their competition to see who can be the most likable servant in the land.
But change is coming. Rape, wedlock and interracial romance are all about to enter the Abbey as it pushes ahead into the social rifts of the jazz age (a musical incursion personified, unfortunately, by a badly cast Gary Carr). A few of the crises are a bit overheated, and many of the resolutions rely too heavily on surprise encounters and overheard conversations. (Note to anyone ever staying with the Crawleys: Check the halls around you carefully before you speak.)
That's always been a part of the Downton Abbey storytelling mix, sort of Jane Austenfed through a Hill Street Blues blender. Your eyes may roll at times, but if you've put up with the string of coincidences before, you won't stop watching now.
The problem this season is that too many of the plots are uninvolving at best, and irritating at worst. It's not clear that any story for Rose could work, but the one provided is unconvincing on every front. Worse yet, as will become clear later, the story chosen for Anna and Bates threatens to wear out those characters' welcome.
Those lapses would be easier to take were they not accompanied by a sudden influx of excess nobility. Gone are those happy days when Robert reacted to his daughter's affair with the Irish chauffeur with completely believable, in-period, class-conscious bigotry. This season, tolerance is the rule, as if someone had forgotten that it is possible for nice people to have some ugly traits.
The only bright spot is the show's willingness to let grief bring out the worst in Mary - and even that burst of reality fades after Sunday's premiere. By the end of the run, she's as saintly as everyone else. If the trend continues, next season will find Violet railing against income equality and campaigning with Isobel for land redistribution.
Which would really be too much to bear.