Monday, January 6, 2014

DOWNTON ABBEY: COULD SEASON FOUR BE THE BEST YET?


Dishing about Downton: Last month, I lunched separately with executive producer Gareth Neame and Lesley Nicol who plays Mrs. Patamore on the PBS hit for my "Lunch" column

Matthew who? Downton Abbey's executive producer Gareth Neame was telling the truth last month when he told me over lunch that season four was one of the show's best. While fans of the show held their breath awaiting the show's long overdue return wondering how could we go on without the show's stalwart Mr. Crawley, Neame told me, "It was the best thing that could have happened." And while we're on the subject is Dan Stevens, who I've always liked very much,  destined to be the new David Caruso? Discuss among yourselves.

I have to admit I was a bit skeptical, but after watching last night's fast-paced two hour premiere, I'm inclined to agree. While other hit shows have been prone to shark jumping (Helloo Scandal) or toying with faithful fans' affections and patience (Mad Men), Downton seems better than ever. Julian Fellowes, who tirelessly endured far too many questions about why he killed off Matthew (we're talking to you, Bill Carter) during the cast's recent press tour of New York, served up the perfect blend of unforeseen plot twists and comfortable familiarity for the faithful in the supersized (we like!) first episode. Absolutely flawless acting, great plot twists -- and those clothes!! And I'm still reeling from those horrid words uttered by Nanny West. My Irish blood was boiling ..Good riddance you old cow.

It was a brilliant start. It grabbed me from the get-go. That most clever Fellowes had us on edge from the episode's first minute when it didn't open with the show's signature sweeping theme music over the usual close up of Isis's wagging hind quarters. The shot of one light burning as the rest of Downton slept was a sure sign of foreboding (and reminded me *sob* of Sybil's shocking death -- that's the one I'll never get over!) 

Here's what happened:

Lady Mary: After spending six months of living in a near catatonic state, the palest young widow in all of Yorkshire found her way back to life thanks to Violet (in one of the series' most brilliant scenes) and Tom's (my absolute favorite character who makes Matthew look like a wimp, if you ask me) careful and caring prodding and Tom's enlisting the aid of Carson, who endured a heartbreaking rebuff from Mary when he "overstepped" himself. Any Downton fan worth their salt knew where Mary was headed when she finally figured out it was time to snap out of it. Her apology to her surrogate father, the subsequent pouring out of his fatherly love and her torrent of tears had us reaching for the Kleenex. Well done, Michelle Dockery and Jim Carter. With Robert's transparently selfish intentions to shield his eldest daughter from the dreary reality of running the estate foiled by everyone from Tom to Violet ("When you talk like that I'm tempted to call for Nanny and send you to bed without your supper"), how fabulous was it to see Mary (who finally traded her widow's black for lavender) join the farmers' lunch where the gallant Tom gave her his seat (literally and figuratively) at the table? As his last act of chivalry, it turns out Matthew penned a secret letter naming his wife as sole heir in the unlikely event of his death setting up what is sure to be plenty of fireworks between a father determined to hold on to the past and a daughter looking to create a new future. We can't wait.

Lady Edith: Well, well, well. Edith has finally gotten a life and she's more than making up for lost time. She's in a sizzling affair with her editor Michael Gregson (who looks a lot more handsome than he did last year), spending a lot more time in London and wearing some serious sexy clothes. (I had to laugh at Mary's take on Edith's new love: "He's not bad looking and he's alive -- which points him two points ahead of most men of our generation." Good one) How glam was that strapless gown seemingly held up by a thin string of beads she wore to meet her man at a swanky London restaurant? Downton's own Carrie Bradshaw is a modern woman on the move. We'll luxuriate in all this fabulousness until the inevitable happens: what can possibly go wrong with her man's plan to become a German citizen so he can marry her? They may not know it, but they're sure to find out there's worse things in life than his Jane Eyre-esque marriage to his mad woman wife.

Tom Branson: Let's me just say I am completely in love with this character and having met Allen Leech recently, I have a serious crush on this terrific actor. His character, more than any other, has endured the most change and grown the most.  Leech's understated portrayal of the political activist chauffeur turned reluctant semi-aristocrat grounds the show and gives it plenty of heart. Leech manages to imbue every scene that he's in with compassion and common sense. Even the ones where all he does is shoot another actor a look. We hate Edna Braithwaite already as she is sure to cause big problems for our man.

Lord and Lady Grantham: It's amazing Downton is still standing with these two clueless dopes at the helm. Robert seems to have forgotten than he almost drove the whole thing off a cliff last year and is poised to fight Mary and Tom tooth and nail over every change they want to make in the running of the estate. It's a good thing Violet (the peerless Maggie Smith) is there to utter devastating one-liners and remind her son to man up and do the right thing for his daughter -- and the future of Downton. Cora, heartbroken that evil O'Brien stole off in the middle of the night to work for that dreadful Lady Flincher (thanks for the heads up, Rose), hires a woman who was once fired by Mrs. Hughes and takes her side over Anna, the nicest woman in all of Downton. Paging Shirley MacClaine! We did love her scene where she nearly ripped Nanny West to shreds, though. But that was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time -- thank God!

Isobel Crawley: I literally sobbed when Penelope Wilton uttered this cut-you-to-the-quick line: "When your only child dies, you're not a mother anymore, you're not anything." A clearly moved Edith reminds her: "You're a grandmother." In a somewhat odd plot twist (but not really, if you think of it), Isobel comes back to life when Mrs. Hughes asks her to take in Carson's old friend Charlie Grigg who is wasting away in a nearby workhouse. This oddly sweet storyline managed to reveal the backstory of Carson's broken heart (when his ladylove married Charlie instead of him) and once again allowed Carson to reveal himself as an old softie under that starched collar. Who didn't know he'd emerge from the waiting room at the train station to mend his decades long riff with Charlie before the newly rehabilitated carny went off to his new job in Belfast?

Thomas Barrow: If you thought nearly losing his job and facing jail when his homosexuality was discovered by the annoying Jimmy and Alfred (really, I could do with a lot less of these two) would make him a nicer person, think again. Bates will surely rue the day he saved Thomas from banishment now that he has a new co-conspirator in Braithwaite.

Anna & Bates: The long suffering couple are so happy and in love at the moment, you just know whatever comes next is going to be epically tragic. Be afraid, be very afraid.

I'll be recapping every episode here so check back next week and please let me know what you think.

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