‘Downton Abbey’ Reviews: Can Season 4 Survive the Death of Matthew Crawley?

'Downton Abbey' Reviews: Can Season 4 Survive the Death of Matthew Crawley?

Critics are weighing in on the return of everyone's favorite aristocratic sudser

Has “Downton Abbey” jumped the proverbial shark, or in its case, the sterling silver tea set?

That troubling question arises in many reviews for the British soap opera's fourth season, which returns viewers to the world of white gloves and dinner jackets Sunday when it airs on PBS. It's a glorious long-ago time filled with trusty valets, conniving parlor maids and well-intentioned aristocrats.

“Downton Abbey” follows the social, romantic and financial headaches of a sprawling group of landed gentry and servants as they struggle to adjust to changing times following the end of World War I. Among the signs of an exciting new modern era — in no particular order — electric mixers, sewing machines and black people (in the form of a new jazz musician character).

TheWrap's Diane Garrett reports that based on the initial episodes, the show is still addictive, but it's sudsier than past seasons and more familiar. Maggie Smith is still firing off put-downs as the Dowager Countess, Lady Mary remains elegant and love-lorn and everyone's manners are impeccable.

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

“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,” Garrett wrote.

Slate's Willa Paskin picked up a similar theme, noting that even though the skirts may be getting shorter and the music louder, it's still the same old “Downton.” And that's a problem.

“The show makes Granthams of all of us: content with what we have now  (a middling costume soap opera) because we can still remember its glorious past (that first season),” Paskin wrote. “It's safer and cozier than a show about open class warfare.”

There may be nary a Bolshevik in the cloistered world of “Downton,”  but the death of a major character in last season's finale was a bold move by creator Julian Fellowes that the Los Angeles Times' Mary McNamara believes paid off. The car accident that permanently lifted Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) out of the series and broke viewers’ hearts on both ends of the pond, has helped his wife Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) emerge as a more compelling figure, she argued.

“Never has the death of a character so obviously cleared away the brambles that can choke even a popular show to death,” McNamara wrote.

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

Newsday's Verne Gay still pined for Matthew, however, noting in her review that his absence is “a black hole” in the middle of the show. Although the series sputters out of the gate, Gay wrote that it still had its charms and “… remains, as ever, a thing of immaculate beauty.”

It's a darker show that occasionally stumbles as it attempts to take the action out of Edwardian times and into the Jazz Age, Bloomberg/Business Week's  Claire Suddath argued. However, there's still a healthy helping of ham for viewers to dig into along with those cucumber sandwiches.

“Fellowes has written plenty of salacious subplots to keep fans entertained,” Suddath wrote. “There are still grudges and rivalries and backstabbing servants.”

Variety's Brian Lowry also noted that the dawning of a new era could threaten the gentile society that “Downton” portrays, potentially spoiling the lifestyle and real estate porn that the series offers up to ogle over.  After all, electronic appliances would make a large swath of the downstairs contingent irrelevant.

Until that time, however, the Variety critic noted “…this annual escape into the early-20th century is an experience in time travel not to be missed – and Fellowes, if not always generous with his beloved characters, remains the most hospitable of tour guides.”

  • AndyWarhorse

    Gentile society? I thought they were Jewish! Verne Gay, BTW, is a man.

  • GABBY

    I PERSONALLY LOVED THE SHOW AND COULD NOT WAIT FOR THE NEW SEASONS – IN THE PAST. WITH THE DEATH OF MATTHEW, IT HAS CHANGED THE WHOLE FEELING OF THE SHOW AND IT IS NOT WHAT I WAS LOOKING FORWARD TO. SEEMS LIKE EVERYONE WHO FINDS LOVE AND IS HAPPY IN THIS SHOW ENDS UP IN HORRIBLE TRAGEDY TO THE POINT IT IS GETTING A BIT RIDICULOUS.
    BAD DECISION TO NOT BRING MATTHEW BACK (IN THE FORM OF ANOTHER ACTOR). THAT WOULD HAVE AT LEAST CARRIED THAT GENERATION FORWARD IN A HAPPY MANNER. NOW, YOU HAVE MARY DOING THE SAME THING SHE DID THE WHOLE TIME SHE WAS PINING AWAY FOR MATTHEW! BORING…….

  • Rob

    Switched in the 3rd quarter of the Superbowl to watch Downton Abbey. Love it!

  • Robbie

    A friend got me into this show and leant me the first three seasons which I have been getting through in obsessive speed! I love the show ( always have been a fan of period pieces) , but am in agreement with the comment that the choice to kill off Mathew was too much tragedy and huge letdown at least to me. Funny to pity such a privileged family, but there is plenty of scandal and intrigue amongst the family and the servants to allow some happiness into the storyline. Good grief!! He seemed to intrical a role to eliminate. I think it was a bad move. On another note and despite my frustration, I absolutely love the acting, particularly Maggie Smith! She is acting gold and from Harry Potter to Sister Act have loved her in all that she has done. Shirley MaClaine is a great… Maggie is even greater!

  • Deeed

    Horrible ending to season 3. Pitiful writing to do at Christmas and such a main character. Season 4 will stay in the store……I am not buying it and will keep my memories of Mathew, Mary and the show as is.