Thursday, February 16, 2012

Christmas Comes to Downton

It is a big hall to deck, but that is why they have a lot of servants. The holidays have come to the Grantham ancestral home, bringing welcome tidings for some. Originally broadcast in Britain as a Christmas special, the finale of the second American season of Downton Abbey (promo here) airs this Sunday as part of the current season of Masterpiece Classic on PBS.

Stately Downton Abbey has weathered its tenure as a military hospital, but the Great War deeply affected the household. The servants still mourn for one of their own, while Cousin Matthew, the heir apparent, continues to torture himself over the circumstances of his fiancĂ©’s tragic death. The Earl of Grantham’s day-to-day life has largely returned to a state of Hardingesque normalcy. However, there are troubling developments brewing on the horizon.

Grantham’s valet Bates is on trial for murdering the not so dearly departed Mrs. Bates. The Earl and several of the household staff have been called to testify for the prosecution. So far, the press has not connected the trial to the Grantham family, presumably thanks to the intercession of Sir Richard Carlisle, the crass newspaper baron engaged to his daughter, Lady Mary. While Lord Grantham is at a loss to understand why she persists in such a problematic match, viewers know Lady Mary sought a strategic alliance with Carlisle in order to avoid scandal.

Originally presented as a stand-alone episode, the second season finale still presumes an intimate familiarity with the Grantham family history. However, it is as good a place as any to jump in mid season, especially if you just read the two paragraphs above. After all, the Downton phenomenon is not letting up any time soon. After the first season won the Emmy Award for best miniseries of 2011, to the surprise of exactly nobody, an announcement was made Shirley MacLaine will join the cast for the upcoming third season as Lady Violet’s American counterpart.

Needless to say, it would not be Christmas without Dame Maggie Smith’s delightfully mordant Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess. Viewers will also meet two new characters played by high profile guest stars: Nigel Havers, instantly recognizable as Lord Lindsay in Chariots of Fire, and Sharon Small, best known for playing Barbara Havers (no relation) in the Inspector Lynley Mysteries. More or less presented as a gift to fans, episode seven includes everything they appreciate about the series and gives them some of the resolution they have been craving. Of course, there are plenty of unsettled plotlines remaining for the American grandmother to sort out.

Written by Lord Julian Fellowes, who has penned nearly the entire series, this season’s finale has all the crackling wit and old world grace that have struck such a chord with viewers. It is a strong send-off, paying off the faithful, yet leaving them wanting more, all the same. Highly recommended, some of the best television of this still young year concludes this Sunday (2/19) on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic.