Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Return to Downton Abbey

The British upper-class always understood the importance of doing one’s part, maintaining appearances, and keeping a stiff upper lip. With the outbreak of World War I, the aristocratic Crawleys will respond as best they can. However, the war will profoundly affect both the family and their large staff of servants in the eagerly anticipated second season of Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey (promo here), which premieres on Masterpiece Classic this coming Sunday.

After highly rated first season of Downton, millions of Americans are now familiar with the intricacies of Edwardian estate law. The Crawleys' ancestral manor is entailed, meaning it can only be transferred to a male heir. Lord Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham has three daughters, still. After the tragic death of the heir apparent, Matthew Crawley, the middle class black sheep of the family, became the next in line. Though initially quite frosty towards each other, a cold war courtship developed between Cousin Matthew and the eldest daughter, Lady Mary, that almost but not quite bore fruit. As the second season opens, Mr. Crawley has a complicating surprise for Downton Abbey: Lavinia Swire, his new fiancé.

Both Lady Mary and her father do their best to welcome Swire into the family, but the Earl’s mother, Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess is not impressed. She rarely is. However, the war presents more pressing issues when Mr. Crawley accepts a commission taking him to the front. The war comes to Downton directly when Lord Grantham and his American wife Lady Cora reluctantly allow their stately home to serve as a rehabilitation hospital for wounded officers. In their own way, the three Crawley sisters find ways to be of service. Even the Dowager Countess puts her talents for scheming to noble uses, but tragedy will strike the household, sparing neither the high nor low born.

A surprise hit on both sides of the Atlantic, Downton was recognized by Guinness World Records as the best reviewed show ever (I’m still waiting for my plaque, by the way). Everything that worked the first time around is here again. Jim Carter is still one of television’s most engaging presences as Carson the butler, a model of rectitude, but with a good heart beneath his proper façade. Rob James Collier is still memorably oily as Thomas the conniving ex-footman. Most importantly, the Emmy winning Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is still a tart tongued force to be reckoned with. Though used sparingly in the first episode, she comes on strong as the series progresses.

Fellowes compellingly captures a sense of the British home front and his ear for dialogue is as sharp as ever. However, he occasionally indulges in some more unlikely melodrama in the second season (such as an amnesia subplot) that almost seems to be a tribute to those big chewy Victorian novels. After all, if Dickens and Trollope were alive today, they would probably be writing television serials, just like Downton. As it happens, episode six completes something of a story-arc, resolving several issues, but leaving some characters in a bit of a cliff-hanger the old serialists would appreciate. (Originally produced as Christmas special edition, PBS recommends separate review attention for episode seven.)

Naturally, every character has their particular storyline continuing from the first season, yet the not-yet-perhaps-never romance between Mr. Crawley and Lady Mary remains of central importance. Do we really care whether his reverse snobbery and her pride can ever be reconciled? Frankly, yes. Deeply so, in fact. Indeed, for all of Lady Violet’s delightful zingers (“those simple-minded idiots on the Liberal front bench” is an especially tasty one this time around), the surprising depth of their evolving relationship is the truest testament to Fellowes’ superior writing.

Classy, elegant, and wickedly droll, Downton Abbey is still exceptional television. Once again, the most likely best of the year comes early when the second season airs over the next seven consecutive Sundays (1/8-2/19) on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic.