Sorry to say that I must also chime in with a spot of bother: After such breathless anticipation, the second season of “Downton Abbey,” which begins Sunday night on PBS stations, fails in a few important ways to match its original charm. It instead becomes a cautionary example of what happens when we get precisely what we ask for.
The first season, which aired a year ago to runaway praise and viewership, was a wonderfully kinetic juggling act of highbrow drama, historical sweep and character development. It was great fun to watch, not only for anglophiles (an easy get) but also, more surprisingly, for anglophobes. “Downton Abbey” struck an odd chord in an era of 21st-century economic dissonance and disgust. It was and still is the very definition of escapism, dialing back 100 years to celebrate the wealth gap rather than disparage it. It persists in the fantasy that a quaint and even tender co-dependence exists between the haves and the have-nots in their employ. To our lasting humiliation, we gobble it up.
The first season was also only six hours long, which at the time seemed too brief. Viewers got a taste of “Downton Abbey’s” soothing opiate of corseted class stricture and meticulous manners and instantly craved more. Count your TV critic among its swoony fans; just last month I put the series at the top of my list of 2011’s best TV shows.
So what goes awry this time? It’s quite possible that we just wanted it all too badly, a desire most sequels struggle to fulfill. “Downton Abbey” went back into production on a wave of demands: Make it richer, make it longer and give us more, more, more; now, now, now. Writer and creator Julian Fellowes hastily came back with a lot more.
But that’s about all he’s come back with. At 10 sumptuous hours in total length, “Downton Abbey” lacks surprise and is stretched precariously thin, a house full of fascinating people with not nearly enough to do, all caught in a loop of weak storylines that circle round but never fully propel. Built on a recurring theme (and historical generality) that the war will change British life and dismantle its musty social barriers and norms, “Downton Abbey” seems unwilling to fully engage that transformation.
In the first eight hours (parts 1-6; PBS provided all but the final two-hour episode in time for this review), the characters endure the war with a lot of minor drama but little in the way of profound loss or personal change, even though the script keeps promising full-on disaster. The foreshadowing is often quite thick, but the follow-through is often next to nil.