When you think about what Downton Abbey has achieved, and is continuing to pull off, it's actually pretty remarkable. In an era when the most acclaimed TV series of the decade is an edgy cable drama about a dying, meth-making criminal, Downton Abbey draws similarly large audiences on broadcast TV — public TV, at that — with an old-fashioned soap opera about servants and household staffers and those they serve. As Season 4 begins on PBS, Downton Abbey is the most popular drama in the history of public television. When the whole of the TV universe is fragmenting, that isn't just impressive. It's almost impossible. But here we are.
And having seen the first seven hours of the new season, I think I know why. Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of Downton Abbey, has crafted characters so well-rounded, so complicated and so interesting that we're drawn to them no matter what the circumstances. The casting is first-rate — in many instances, perfect. The scenery and set design is beautiful to behold. And the many subplots are both rapidly paced and firmly telegraphed. When new characters or conflicts are introduced, their trajectory seems obvious — yet every so often, Fellowes throws in a twist so unexpected, and often so unsettling, that characters as well as relationships can change dramatically from one episode to another.
This is the point where we begin talking specifics. One of those sudden shifts occurred at the end of Season 3, when a beloved character, Lady Mary's husband, Matthew, died unexpectedly in a car crash. Season 4 begins six months later, with Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery, so despondent that she stays hidden behind the walls of Downton, as relentlessly grim and dour as a grown-up Wednesday Addams. That goes on for a while, but only until Mr. Carson, who runs the downstairs, confronts Lady Mary to urge her to snap out of her misery. It's both dramatic and comical, because Mr. Carson, played with such British reserve by the deep-voiced Jim Carter, is himself like a human Eeyore. At first, Lady Mary pulls class rank and scolds him for being so bold. But later, she comes downstairs to seek him out privately.
Mr. Carson is one of my favorite Downton characters, but there are plenty of others. Downstairs, I enjoy spending time with absolutely everyone, with a special nod to Brendan Coyle as Mr. Bates. Upstairs, there's the defensive stuffiness of Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham, who runs the estate but no longer owns it — and there's my most cherished character and performer of all, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. Fellowes hands her delicious lines in even the briefest scenes, and Smith nails them all, hammering them home with hilarious understatement.
The parts of Season 4 I've seen have plenty of comedy, plenty of drama and lots of romance — as well as at least one stunner of a cliffhanger. But I haven't seen the season's final episodes, which is when Shirley MacLaine will make a return appearance, accompanied this year by another American guest star, Paul Giamatti. I can't wait — but in this case, I'm happy to.
David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.