January 6, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Downton Abbey”



In its fourth season as the most successful regular series in PBS history, DOWNTON ABBEY operates as smoothly as a well-staffed ancestral estate.  Even though the larger subject of the series is the creeping spread of democracy into the centuries-old system of English aristocracy, which would eventually undermine it into more of a curiosity than a reigning authority, the show has recognized and capitalized on the comforting appeal of tradition and challenged luxury.  These lords and ladies are harmless and well-meaning, no more gentlemanly or ladylike than those who serve them downstairs; Downton coasts on the fiction that it was nearly as satisfying to serve nobles as to be one.

The Season 4 premiere, written by series creator Julian Fellowes and directed by David Evans, did a fine job in transitioning from the heartbreak of the preceding finale to setting up conflicts for the episodes to come.  6 months had elapsed since the tragic death of Matthew Crawley, felled by an auto accident and Dan Stevens’s unwillingness to renew his contract.  That passage of time allowed Fellowes to begin wrapping up the grief of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) in about an hour of screen time; he cannily got us there by using one of the most powerful emotional threads in the entire series, the surrogate father-daughter relationship between Lady Mary and butler Carson (Jim Carter).  The Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) loves his daughter, but it’s Carson who knows when to challenge her and when she needs a good cry.  By episode’s end, with the help of an informal will Matthew left stuck in a book in his office (this season we’re likely to learn as much about inheritance taxes in 1920s England as previous seasons taught us about the rules of noble succession), Lady Mary was ready to turn her hand to co-managing the familial estate, doubtless putting her in conflict with her conservative father–and also, before too much more time has passed, putting her back on the marriage market.

Which is good, because the romance quotient of a Downton season can’t be met merely by Lady Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) continuing (platonic, for now) relationship with her newspaper editor, married to an institutionalized madwoman (he’s currently planning to move to Germany in order to get a divorce, and one imagines no good can come of that), and by the family’s flibbertigibbet ward Rose (Lily James) flirting with a low-born local.  There is, as ever, much more going on in and around the Abbey, of course.  Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) are now so blissfully happy that some awful twist is sure to occur–one possibility is the return of Edna (MyAnna Buring), last seen fired for her interest in son-in-law/estate agent Branson (Allen Leech), now back as the maid of Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern)–necessarily because O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) moved to India, which is to say that she didn’t renew her contract either–and egged on by the ever-scheming Barrow (Rob James-Collier).

The episode also touched nicely on the ripples caused by Matthew’s death, not only at the Abbey itself, but for his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) and his former valet Mosely (Kevin Doyle), reduced to paving roads and accepting charity from Bates disguised as a repaid “loan”.  There were, of course, appearances by the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), who for once got to be more than a vehicle for imperious quips as she tried to talk some sense into her grief-stricken granddaughter, and the premiere gave Carson a solid storyline about a former associate of his from his days on the stage.  Everyone in the cast has by now so inhabited their roles that they seem inseparable from the parts they play, able to convey nuance with a pause or a raised eyebrow.

Downton Abbey will have a bit of a challenge this season because its main story engine was always the relationship between Lady Mary and Matthew, and it’s not clear if any new plotline will have the emotion and thematic importance of that.  Still, even if this season features a certain amount of wheel-spinning, few shows on TV spin their wheels as attractively and entertainingly as Downton.  In its own bucolic fashion as much a fantasy as any superhero adventure, Downton is an expert exercise in class, in more ways than one.

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."