‘Downton Abbey’ Review: Classy Costume Sudser Is Starting to Show Its Age

'Downton Abbey' Review: Classy Costume Sudser Is Starting to Show Its Age

Julian Fellowes’ upper-crust soap opera remains as compulsively watchable as ever despite occasional lapses into melodrama

Times are changing, we constantly hear during Season 4 of “Downton Abbey,” but you wouldn't really know it from the characters themselves.

The upstairs and downstairs folk at Downton behave pretty much as we've come to know and expect they will in the season getting underway Sunday on PBS.

Julian Fellowes’ upper crust soap picks up six months after Matthew Crawley's death with Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) near catatonic with grief, yet somehow able to attract a trio of suitors in short order. She claims to have been changed by her love for Matthew, but seems as aloof and severe as ever and hardly a candidate for mother of the year.

Poor Daisy and Lady Edith remain unlucky in love, and Cousin Isobel (Penelope Wilton) continues to clash with the Dowager Countess (the incomparable Maggie Smith, once again delivering many of the show’s best lines) over her passion for do-goodery.

Also read: 5 ‘Downton Abbey’ Problems to Make Your First-World Problems Seem Like Malaria

As for the estate ownership issue that powered so much drama in previous seasons? Let’s just say it’s the plot point that keeps on giving in “Downton Abbey.”

These familiar elements are part of the show’s appeal, but are also starting to become a problem. There are only so many times characters can face the same obstacles without the show turning into a soapy 1920s version of “Groundhog Day” or a fatalistic downer.

“Sometimes I feel that God doesn't want me to happy,” Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) confides to the Dowager Countess at one point.

“My dear,” her grandmother responds. “All of life is a series of problems that we must try and solve. First one, and the next and the next until we die.”

That response does not bode well for Lady Edith’s problem-plagued romance with Michael Gregson, who mysteriously disappears for part of the season.

See video: ‘Downton Abbey's’ Lady Mary Fights Modern Crime With Old World Class in New Spoof

Peripheral characters such as Molesley, Matthew's former valet, also undergo endless humiliations as a form of comic relief. Would Cousin Isobel, usually so eager to help the downtrodden, really be so overcome with grief that she would decline to give poor Molesley a job in the early going? She helps at least two others this season and Molesley once served Matthew, her only son.

But if she did help Molesley, his character couldn’t stick to his prescribed role as a sad sack whose attempts to better himself are continually undone.

Star-crossed lovers Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) endure another serious challenge to their relationship this season, and while Anna’s misfortune and the subsequent rift between her and Mr. Bates seemed a bit heavy handed, it at least spared us more scenes of them mooning over each other.

Fun loving Rose (Lily James) brings race into the picture when she befriends a black jazz musician (Gary Carr), and the show manages to handle the characters’ response to it with sensitivity and occasional wit. The show also continues to address the financial concerns of the landed gentry after World War I as a serious concern but not without its comedic aspects: The Crawleys’ attempts to diversify with pigs prompts many an amusing query about their progress, and leads to a mud-filled escapade with Lady Mary and one of her suitors.

See video: ‘Downton Abbey’ Christmas Special Teaser: Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti Are Neither Holly Nor Jolly

Modern technology is also played for laughs, with the tradition-minded contingent downstairs eying a new electric mixer and sewing machine with deep suspicion.

Alas, the much anticipated face-off between Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith as dueling grandmothers won’t take place until the end of the season in an episode not made available for preview. (That episode recently aired as a Christmas special in the U.K.)

Despite the occasional creakiness and lapses into melodrama “Downton Abbey” remains a show to watch, notable for its dreamy production values and the real depth of feeling it portrays between the classes. When Mr. Carson tries to shake Lady Mary out of her grief, only to be dressed down for it, the pain shines through Jim Carter’s eyes. It’s moments like those — and the Dowager Countess’s ripostes — that “Downton Abbey” fans lap up as readily as heavily clotted cream.

 ”Downton Abbey” premieres Sunday on PBS

  • Ivan

    Even a ‘steady as she goes’ season of Downton Abbey, is worlds beyond the majority of the dreck that's on television.

    • MarkJeffries

      If everything else on TV is dreck, then where is this “Second Golden Age of Television” that Tim Goodman and Maureen Ryan keep talking about? On premium channels only?

      • michael hall

        There is no golden age of television. at least not in America. There is only catering (pandering?) to the lowbrow and the white trash.

        • jacksonm

          Curious as to how you think shows like Breaking Bad, Homeland, Walking Dead, House of Lies, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Downton Abbey, Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are “catering (pandering?) to the lowbrow and the white trash”.

          • michael hall

            Compare those shows to The Prisoner, Flambards, To Serve Them All My Days, To The Manor Born, As Time Goes By, The Twilight Zone, and the early (first 4 years) of Perry Mason.

  • IrishForEver

    Whatever this reviewer says/thinks, you're correct, Ivan: Downton is a television series for the ages. Engaging, high production values, excellent acting, great writing. There are millions of us who can't wait for Season 4 to begin…

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  • Betty

    DA has become a crowd-pleasing peon to the Aristocracy.The plot in season 4 is ridiculous.An unknown man can be found and plucked out of the workhouse,cared for in no time and sent to a Theater job in London.Carson is cured of his emotional baggage by a handshake because of the loyalist housekeeperUnemployment is solved by a 30 pound note given him by the job creators of the Estate.
    What happened to Cora?She seems to have disapperared as a character.
    There seems to be an overall irritability and resignation to the actors.
    Branson redeems himself by keeping the Estate going.
    I liked O'Brien because she was real and straightforward.I miss her character.
    Edith's being in the precarious position of dating a possibly philandering and dishonest man and heading for Germany is intiguing.
    Well.we'll see what develops

    • trinimoy 15

      I am another die hard DW fan, but I think the newest plots and sub plots could wear a bit thin. Fellowes should take us back to the days when Cora and Robert courted before the children came; of course this would require a whole new cast, but the possibilities are intriguing. I do not want to become bored with DW. however the latest offerings are no longer as exciting as the earlier episodes. We lost some key characters and risk rendering the series as too banal.

      • brownbreadandale4

        Perfect is for heaven!
        Stop demanding perfection on earth!

        They are doing the best they can; they are not trying to annoy YOU! If you are that hard to please, find something that meets your standards; don't trash the rest of us!

        Also, you are hardly a “die hard” fan with that list of complaints. You are an “erstwhile” fan at best.

    • brownbreadandale4

      He was NOT an “unknown.” He had been Carson's partner in vaudeville (and was part of the initial offering, so this was the SECOND time he was at the Abbey).

      And, he had a trade, and they found a job for him. Nothing unusual about that. They found a job for the maid who wanted to be a typist. And a job for William when he joined the war effort. And a job for Molesley. And a place for Sybil in the hospital. And a place for Barrow when he joined the military. And MONEY for the maid who “intrigued” Robert. And a second chance for Edna. And a second place for Barrow. They were VERY interested in putting folks in the correct “spot.” That was something that Robert did, and Cora did, and Mary did, and Carter did, and Mrs. Hughes did. And, Isobel also did with regularity.