The major-character deaths that rocked the third season of “Downton Abbey” have left series creator Julian Fellowes with considerable work to do as the fourth flight begins, and he responds with a slow-going premiere that quickly escalates in the second chapter. Not all the new or new-ish characters are created equal (sorry, cousin Rose), but for those intoxicated by the program’s split-level charms, a new season of “Downton” is about as close to blue meth as PBS has to offer.
Without giving too much away, the premiere finds Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) still reeling from the loss of her husband, while eventually beginning to take an interest in the future of the grand estate – to the modest chagrin of her father, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), who has his own ideas (if history’s any guide, likely awful) about how the place should be managed.
Thankfully, even with the casualties suffered, Grantham’s imperious mother, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, who should have been knighted for this role if she hadn’t already), returns in midseason form, once again tossing off one-liners with a droll, effortless ease that approaches grand larceny. “It’s the job of grandmothers to interfere,” she says at one point.
The Dowager’s combative relationship with Isabel (Penelope Wilton) – like Mary, still nursing emotional wounds from her son’s death – provides one of the current season’s great pleasures.
As for the downstairs contingent, there’s no shortage of melodrama there either, most of it too vital to be teased. Though suffice it to say the swoon-inducing romance between gentleman’s butler Bates (Brendan Coyle) and maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), having survived several tests, is going to face one more, in a manner that, once again, largely drives much of the story.
The cast is so uniformly good, frankly, it’s tempting not to single anyone out, and Fellowes continues to juggle the dizzying assortment of plots with what appears to be effortless ease. That said, one can see him repeating himself in some of the flourishes as the season progresses. (As in the past, PBS has made all the episodes except the final one available, asking Yankee viewers to be patient and avoid the Twitter feeds of any friends in the U.K. As a result, a return by Shirley MacLaine and guest stint by Paul Giamatti as Cora’s playboy brother in the finale weren’t previewed.)
Already renewed for a fifth season, “Downton” has become its own kind of ratings annuity for PBS, providing the pubcaster with an infusion of vigor that has emboldened it to expand its menu of ambitious dramatic offerings, and once again proving genuine hits in the present environment can originate anywhere.
As these episodes make clear, time is not on the side of “Downton’s” old-fashioned aristocracy, and the damage done to that way of life during World War I looms even larger juxtaposed with knowledge of the trials England is destined to face in the years ahead.
For now, though, this annual escape into the early-20th century is an experience in time travel not to be missed – and Fellowes, if not always generous with his beloved characters, remains the most hospitable of tour guides.