Friday, January 3, 2014

Review: Downton Abbey

A Solid Start for Downton Abbey Season Four

If Downton Abbey has had a fault in its first three seasons on PBS - and, really, it has barely had any - it is that sometimes creator Julian Fellowes forces the Crawley family into situations just to shake up their easygoing, glamorous lives.

Season two's sometimes-criticized World War I episodes come to mind. For a stretch, the Crawleys went from living their lives in the serene English countryside to overhauling the Abbey into a makeshift hospital. More than that, the horrors of war forced the family into commingling with their downstairs servants.

In season three, Fellowes focused more on what Downton does best, which is to create an atmosphere that transports viewers from everyday life into the lives of the Crawleys and their servants. Downton's characters are so richly written and the actors so talented - led by the amazing Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham - that nothing much really needs to happen to get you completely hooked.

That's just as it is as season four opens. The atmosphere is gloomy, but beautifully so. A heavy fog hangs over the Abbey. The streets are wet and gray. The Crawleys and the Abbey's staff are dressed in dingy blues and grays. The familiar tinkling of the piano in Downton's opening scenes is subdued.

There's good reason for that, of course.

Season three ended with the death of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). By then, he had begun to transform Downton from an aging relic that couldn't financially sustain itself into a modern Abbey that was flush with cash and a promising future.

Matthew Crawley's death is hanging over the Abbey as season four begins. For much of the first hour of the two-hour premiere (Sunday - PBS, 9pm), Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is in mourning. She's distant and removed, even from Matthew and her baby.

Julian Fellowes wisely allows the story to slowly unfold. It's the characters and the mood of the Abbey that viewers are coming for, not a rushed-to conclusion of anything.

There are secondary storylines aplenty, and that's a good thing. Often, on Downton, it's the other stuff going on that's the most fun.

It's 1922 and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and the kitchen staff are dealing with the arrival of electric appliances, with trepidation. Upstairs, Violet's niece Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) gets caught up in a sexy love affair - sans the sex, so far - with a guy who's decidedly downstairs.

Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael), the homeliest of the Crawley sisters and forever struggling to find love, has a promising new storyline, and a promising new beau. Her life is increasingly veering away from the Abbey and into a more modern London scene.

Back at the Abbey, Lady Mary also dips her toe into modern life, albeit modern life at the Abbey.

As the fog surrounding the Abbey lifts, and as the tinkling piano gets louder and faster paced, Lady Mary reemerges from six months of mourning to take control of the Abbey, whether or not she's entitled to do so, as any modern-day business woman might.

Downton critics sometimes point out that Julian Fellowes relies on too-convenient plot twists just to get the story moving along.

There is that in the season four opener. Lady Mary hears from her late husband six months after his death. But the device, while too convenient, is easy to move past.

As Sunday's premiere episode wraps up, you can rest easy that Downton Abbey is in fine form. Julian Fellowes is allowing his characters to just be, although with just enough going on with each of them to make you want to watch more.

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