January 9, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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It’s not an exaggeration to say that many people probably had to check their cable and satellite listings just to find out where their local PBS station was, once it became clear that the first season of what’s now called Masterpiece Classic’s miniseries DOWNTON ABBEY was not to be missed.  Now, after a year-long hiatus, the show is back.
WHERE WE LEFT OFF:  War!  (World War I, to be precise.)  And so much more:  stoic, gallant valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) had defeated the scheming of lady’s maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier), and seemed to have a clear path to confess his love for his beloved, maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt), who stood by him no matter what scandal they set him up for.  Countess Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) was recovering from the miscarriage caused by the evil O’Brien (although she did feel bad about it afterward) when she thought Cora was trying to replace her as maid instead of seeking a new maid for her mother-in-law, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith).  Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findley) was tempted by liberal politics–and by the socialist chauffeur Branson (Allen Leech).  Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) had lost yet another in a string of potential fiancees.  And most of all, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Stevens) continued their star-crossed ways:  despite being a middle-class relation, he’s the heir to the Abbey, thanks to impossible rules of British inheritance, and she disdained him at first, but now that she’s actually ifallen n love with him (and he with her), she nevertheless let her second-guessing get in the way and pulled them apart… forever?

WHERE WE ARE:  The War has affected every facet at life at Downton.  Matthew and Thomas are both at the front (although by the end of the episode, Thomas decided it was better to be shot than dead, and had maneuvered his way back to Downton).  Bates, who seems doomed to bear the ravages of all human evil, was reunited with his not-quite-ex-wife, who’s so foul she makes O’Brien seem like a heroine, and to save the reputation of Lady Mary and the family (that damned dead Turk!), had to desert both Downton and Anna.  Stalwart housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and butler Carson (Jim Carter) know what she’s done, though, so there may yet be justice–but now Matthew’s valet Molesly (Kevin Doyle) has gone sweet on Anna.  Lady Sybil has broken Branson’s heart but become a nurse, and Lady Edith has discovered that she’s not averse to a bit of tractor-driving and rough trade. The Earl (Hugh Bonneville) is trying to get over the fact that his Colonel’s commission in the local regiment is strictly ceremonial.  Kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) is still unthinkingly toying with the heart of former footman, now soldier William (Thomas Howes).  Lady Mary and Matthew, meanwhile, both have new beaus, although it’s perfectly clear that neither of them cares as much about the new people in their life as they do about each other.
Downton Abbey is an extremely canny piece of work, because on the one hand, Julian Fellowes’s scripts are classic PBS stately-manor-house porn, all fabulous rooms, gorgeous costumes, and details of fine living (on “the continent,” servers may serve all the ladies first, but in Britain, tradition says they start with the highest nobility but then serve everyone in the order of seating–no, really), yet they also have the pace of Grey’s Anatomy–filled with short, punchy scenes that are constantly moving characters and storylines forward.  The show barely pauses for breath, or to let the Dowager Empress let loose an impeccably haughty bon mot, and the combination is irresistible.  The show also has a superbly intricate sense of how all the relationships in the house work–Carson and Lady Mary’s surprisingly father-and-daughterish affection for one another occasionally surfaces, as does the mix of vicious envy and genuinely high regard O’Brien has for Cora.
As extraordinarily fine as the show’s writing and visual sumptuousness are, Downton Abbey rides to a great extent on its cast, and demonstrates how deep the bench is among British actors–with only Maggie Smith (who is what Betty White would be if Betty White were infinitely erudite and brilliant) at the Harry Potter level of celebrity, and Elizabeth McGovern, the ingenue from Ordinary People and Ragtime who’s lived in London for decades, as the other familiar face for American audiences, the show mostly features an ensemble of performers who were obscure before Downton and are indelible now.  
Because PBS isn’t advertiser-supported and doesn’t pay for public Nielsen reports (as HBO, Showtime and Starz do), and because its shows air around the week at different times, depending on the vagaries of local stations, its ratings aren’t released with those of other networks, so it’s not clear when we’ll know how well the new Downton Abbey is doing.  Creatively, though, the show continues to be very much in its Golden Age; if it were a feature film, we’d be discussing it as an Oscar frontrunner.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."