Something about “Downton Abbey” died with Matthew Crawley last year. Oops — sorry if you didn’t yet know about poor Matthew, but honestly, how long must the rest of us keep quiet about it? Let’s make a deal: This is a review of Season 4, which begins its American broadcast Sunday night on PBS stations. It will be necessary to mention one or two things that happen, but I promise to tread ever-so-lightly and somewhat unspecifically over the details. (Too late, you’re gone. I completely understand.)
Anyhow, dead Matthew. And this weird, wonderful show that, when boiled down, is just a fancy prime-time soap opera from another land, a saga of how the occupants and employees of a fictional British estate deal with social changes in the 20th century. I have this unfortunate suspicion that some fans will grow bored with the show this season and quietly excuse themselves from its elegant table — maybe when discussion turns to the Teapot Dome scandal in America.
Welcome back, then, to “Downton Abbey,” where poor Lady Mary Crawley (that hard soul disguised as a porcelain bird, played both gloweringly and glowingly by Michelle Dockery) spends the early part of the show’s fourth season in a fog of exquisite, extended mourning for her husband, six months after his death in a motorcar crash. She’s wearing more black than the help.
Soon enough — and goaded by the estate’s butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) — Lady Mary realizes that if she doesn’t pick herself up and get on with life, she will get flattened by the fast-moving train that is Julian Fellowes’s highly popular, plot-heavy, character-driven drama. In Season 4, where it’s now 1922, we find “Downton Abbey” is hewing closely to its unstated motto: Keep frenetic and carry on. (And summon the suitors vying for Mary’s broken heart, nary a Matthew among them. Form a line, lads.)
I’m as glad as anyone to have “Downton Abbey” back, if only for the vicarious pleasure it brings; but I’m also more convinced that “Downton Abbey” is resigned to serve, at least in the United States, as the golden goose egg inside the PBS tote bag. Plots will emerge and peter out; characters will come and go (and live or die) based on an actor’s willingness to sign a contract (it was not that nice knowin’ ya, Miss O’Brien). No matter what happens, “Downton” shall not fall into ruin anytime soon — even though the fate of the fictional estate is increasingly in question.
Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a bad season. Except for a dismally protracted story line that involves a rape (spoiler alert and trigger warning), there’s more than enough pure “Downton”-ness to enjoy this time around. And compared to the dreadful Season 2 (the World War I years) and the dolefully heavy events of Season 3, these new “Downton Abbey” episodes come as close as any to recapturing the first season’s instinct for making the ultra-rarefied seem appealingly universal.
You will continue, with sick fun, to shout out dialogue for the characters mere seconds before they utter the line themselves. “Downton Abbey” is one of those shows that is shielded from criticisms of predictability because predictability (read as reliability) is its hallmark, with occasional shockers thrown in to snap you out of your biscuit coma.
Worth noting: Fellowes and company are delivering sharper, tighter scripts. They’ve taken time to compare and contrast Lady Mary’s grief with that of Matthew’s mother, Isobel Crawley, played by Penelope Wilton, in which Wilton gets to do some of her finest and most nuanced work yet on the show — much of it alongside Maggie Smith’s Violet, the dowager countess, who, true to form, dominates every scene she’s in with one quip after another. It is Violet’s response to grief (and a grieving household), as well as her advice to her family members through several upcoming crises, that offers “Downton’s” most surprising evolution this season. One can almost picture Smith storming into Fellowes’s office and demanding that Violet be humanized a touch and spared from caricature. She is even forced to face some fears of her own.
Other characters, meanwhile, suffer on the back burner: Elizabeth McGovern (as Cora, the estate’s countess), who once provided a lovely centrifugal force to the show, is now playing a kind of parody of Cora, wafting into rooms and sympathetically pursing her lips and tilting her head — and not much else, an egregious example of character benching. Two other key characters are sent packing on an overseas voyage, yet even with its success and presumably larger budget, “Downton Abbey” still never accompanies anyone on a big trip, unless they’re going to war. The show is resolutely about that castle and what goes on in it and near it, with fleeting trips to London, where young cousin-in-heat Rose (Lily James) is still obsessed with jazz. (Which brings me to some non-breaking news: “Downton Abbey” has gained a black person — sort of like “Saturday Night Live.”)
I’ve said too much, haven’t I? All you really need to know is this: “Downton Abbey” has settled into itself. It knows precisely what it wants to be in the time and space allowed and it also knows that its fans don’t come to it for provocative, groundbreaking storytelling or explosive surprises. Losing Matthew was hard enough, given that we watch the show to be soothed and bemused by its minor travails.
By simply luxuriating in “Downton Abbey” and exclaiming “phew!” at its close calls and averted tragedies, we also tire of it. “Downton Abbey” makes such a show of itself, but eventually you have to ask if there’s really much of a TV show there at all. Or if there even has to be.
(two hours) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT. Season concludes Feb. 23.