In the PBS equivalent of a wrestling smackdown, Marvelous Martha and the Dour Dowager swipe verbal kitty claws at each other here and there, but the scene you’re really waiting for — where two similar yet opposite women have a reflective talk about what they’ve seen in life — never comes.
That’s because Fellowes, for all his devotion to the early 20th century, has a true 21st-century attention span. At times, it almost feels as if “Downton Abbey’s” stories and dialogue are written one tweet at a time. He doesn’t like for any one part of his multi-tracked, upstairs-downstairs saga to drag unnecessarily (or even necessarily) on, and he’s not big on payoff.
That wedding we so breathlessly await? It happens, but Fellowes’s blunt sense of transition chops it off the minute Mary walks down the aisle, moving forward. (Funerals get the same treatment.) “Downton Abbey” subsists on characters describing for one another what just happened off-camera; news is delivered instead of witnessed. In that sense, it’s a series that writes its own recaps and prefers “tell” over “show.” And some of Season 2’s bad habits remain — introduce a spot of bother (a cancer scare, for example) and then let it pass uneventfully, all that worry for nothing.
That would usually make a scripted drama a chore to enjoy, but “Downton Abbey’s” frantic bustle is, I suppose, part of its strange sense of relevance. It’s no accident that American audiences fell hard for this vicarious entry into aristocracy amid our own economic woes. It’s about the transition from one sense of culture and society to another, in which one person’s progress is another person’s last gasp. Everyone in Downton Abbey — master or servant, 1 percent or 99 — seems to realize that the game is up, that this way of life cannot last much longer.
Much of the new season focuses on the estate’s fiscal cliff: Will Matthew use a surprise inheritance to save the day? Could Martha fork over still more of her fortune to prop up the Crawleys? Could Downton and its village self-sustain with a new agribusiness model? Or should the family shut it all down, sell it off and move to a “smaller” house that they own in the “country”?
If Fellowes is really in a hurry, I’d like to see “Downton Abbey” leap forward a decade or more to show us what the end of that era looked like. (Instead, there are rumors of a “Downton” prequel, going back into the 19th century, when Robert and Cora meet.)
At this rate, we’ll never get to see Downton and its occupants during World War II, or later still, in its inevitable fate as a modern-day tourist trap with no permanent residents. It feels as if Fellowes has told as many stories as he can about these particular people in this particular moment, and yet the draw is undeniable. I’m fairly sure we’d watch them just sit with their grief for at least another season or two.
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(two-hour premiere) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT. Continues through Feb. 17.