Downton Abbey 04:01

You all waited for it. And it’s here.

The return of Downtown Arby’s

Oops, I mean Downton Abbey!

I am going to be up front and admit something: I have never been the biggest Downton Abbey fan in the world, which if you know me should seem rather odd. This show should be on my must-watch list because it’s filled to the brim with things I love; British period dramas, one of my favorite times in British history, and a strong cast headed by one of my favorite actresses of all time. So why don’t I love it? Well, let’s use this season to work out my issues with the show (and creator Julian Fellowes) as we keep up with Those Crazy Crawleys.

Since this is the first episode of the new season, there is some table setting that needs to happen. And since this is one of the most massive casts in television at the moment, there’s a lot of places to set at the table. When we last left the series, we had one tragic death (RIP Sybil), an introduction of a surprisingly meh character (Lady Rose), a waste of a brilliant bit of stunt casting (the great Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother Martha), and the most WTF moment of the show (the series cliffhanger of Matthew’s death). So it was kind of brilliant how the first episode would start with everyone’s favorite evil lady’s maid O’Brien sneaking off in the night, and the news of it spreading throughout the entire house the next morning. (This of course was necessitated by the real-world departure of Siobhan Finneran, but the big difference was that it was handled in a better way than writing out Dan Stevens as Matthew).

Meanwhile, upstairs of the house, Mary and Tom are both trying to cope with their loss and being single parents, while Robert is still running the estate into the ground in spite of Tom now being the agent of the estate. That said, I admit to liking the twist at the end of the episode that Matthew has broken the rules of primogeniture and given his control of the estate to Mary, much to Robert’s extreme displeasure. And I quite like this idea of Mary and Tom, as the two last people you would expect to run the estate doing a good job of it. Meanwhile, the once feisty Isobel is wracked with grief and is lost. Given how grief-heavy this episode was, credit has to be given to Michelle Dockery, Allen Leach, and Penelope Wilton who were on fire this episode. In contrast, Edith is having none of this, and is hanging out with bohemians, wearing bizarre outfits, and hitting on older men (again?!?).

On the downstairs side, while Carson was happy that the staff was finally at a proper level for the house, the younglings (Daisy, Albert, Ivy, and Jimmy) are still doing that bizarre love quadrangle that is more than just a little confusing (RIP poor foolish William), Anna and Bates are still together, Mrs. Patmore has an intriguing encounter with an electric whisk (which, frankly I could watch an entire series of her experiencing modern appliances thanks to Lesley Nicol’s hilarious performance) and Thomas has gone back into full on bitch mode since his gal pal has left. And it’s here that I have my first (of many) grievances with the show; given that Thomas actually ended up earning his position as under-butler thanks to his skill (and a deus ex machina intervention from Lord Grantham) you would think that there would be some growth to the character by now. But alas, Fellowes isn’t allowing that.

Thankfully, one element of the show has not changed and that is the indomitable Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by the indomitable Maggie Smith. The reason she’s gotten so much acclaim is that (a) she lends equal parts heart, gravitas, and wit to her character making her in an odd way the most modern character of the story, and (b) no one can deliver a put down like her, like the best line of the night, when Robert was being questioned about not showing Matthew’s letter/will to Mary…

As long as Maggie Smith is in the show, I will keep watching Downton Abbey.

So, what did you think of the premiere, gentle readers? Let me know, but please, for the sake of the colonials, no spoilers.

NEXT WEEK: A brilliant bit of stunt casting that works, uninvited houseguests, and uninvited… well, we shall leave it there for now.

PS: Though she may have left the show, O’Brien’s Bangs live on to commit acts of evil!

Image & Video Credits: SketchY/Yahoo, PBS/ITV

Originally Published on 6 January 2014 as part of “The Idiot Box,” my television column for l’étoile.

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