Hank Stuever The Washington Post
Something about “Downton Abbey” died with Matthew Crawley last year.
Oops. Sorry if you didn’t yet know about poor Matthew, but honestly, how long must the rest of us keep quiet about it?
Let’s make a deal: This is a review of Season 4, which begins its American broadcast Sunday night on PBS stations. It will be necessary to mention a few things that happen, but I promise to tread ever-so-lightly and somewhat unspecifically over the details.
Anyhow, dead Matthew. And this weird, wonderful show that, when boiled down, is just a fancy prime-time soap opera from another land, a saga of how the occupants and employees of a fictional British estate deal with social changes in the 20th century.
Welcome back, then, to “Downton Abbey,” where poor Lady Mary Crawley (that hard soul disguised as a porcelain bird, played both gloweringly and glowingly by Michelle Dockery) spends the early part of the show’s fourth season in a fog of exquisite, extended mourning for her husband, six months after his death in a motor car crash. She’s wearing more black than the help.
Soon enough — and goaded by the estate’s butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) — Lady Mary realizes that if she doesn’t pick herself up and get on with life, she will get flattened by the fast-moving train that is Julian Fellowes’ highly popular, plot-heavy, character-driven drama.
In Season 4, where it’s now 1922, we find “Downton” is hewing closely to its unstated motto: Keep frenetic and carry on.
Plots will emerge and peter out; characters will come and go (and live or die) based on an actor’s willingness to sign a contract (it was not that nice knowin’ ya, Miss O’Brien).
No matter what happens, “Downton” shall not fall into ruin anytime soon — even though the fate of the fictional estate is increasingly in question.
Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a bad season. Except for a dismally protracted story line that involves a rape (spoiler alert and trigger warning), there’s more than enough pure “Downton”-ness to enjoy this time around.
You will continue, with sick fun, to shout out dialogue for the characters mere seconds before they utter the line themselves.
“Downton Abbey” is one of those shows that is shielded from criticisms of predictability because predictability is its hallmark, with occasional shockers thrown in to snap you out of your biscuit coma.
Worth noting: Fellowes and company are delivering sharper, tighter scripts. They’ve taken time to compare and contrast Lady Mary’s grief with that of Matthew’s mother, Isobel Crawley, played by Penelope Wilton, in which Wilton gets to do some of her finest, most nuanced work yet.
And Maggie Smith’s Violet, the dowager countess, who, true to form, dominates every scene she’s in with one quip after another, offers “Downton’s” most surprising evolution.
One can almost picture Smith storming into Fellowes’ office and demanding that Violet be humanized a touch.
Other characters, meanwhile, suffer on the back burner: Elizabeth McGovern (as Cora, the estate’s countess), who once provided a lovely centrifugal force to the show, is now playing a kind of parody of Cora, wafting into rooms and sympathetically pursing her lips and tilting her head.
I’ve said too much, haven’t I?
All you really need to know is this: “Downton Abbey” has settled into itself. It knows precisely what it wants to be in the time and space allowed and it also knows that its fans don’t come to it for provocative, groundbreaking storytelling or explosive surprises.
“Masterpiece: Downton Abbey” (two hours) returns at 9 p.m. Sunday on KCTS.