By Caryn James | James on Screens January 5, 2012 at 9:01AM
It took a costume drama about nose-in-the-air aristocrats to give PBS pop-culture traction. But just before New Year’s, there was Patton Oswalt catching up with season 1 and practically swooning as he Tweeted with arch wit but no irony, “Oh DOWNTON ABBEY, how have I only just now seen your 1st episode? I'm as besotted as a vicar at a crumpet orgy!” And, confessing his attachment to Lord Grantham’s feminist daughter, his unlikely sex symbol of a valet and the household’s proper but deeply humane butler, he admitted, “I now have a lust-crush on Lady Sybil, a man-crush on Bates and a scorching butler-crush on Mr. Carson.”
Forget that Downton won four Emmys, including best miniseries. If someone as unpretentious as Oswalt – hilarious stand-up, scene-stealer of the black comedy Young Adult – gets swept into this sumptuously filmed, guilty-pleasure Edwardian soap opera, what doubt can there be that it’s not just for grannies?
But be prepared for the new season’s radically darker tone and – I have to say – more melodramatic approach. World War I had just broken out at the end of season one, and Sunday’s new episode begins in 1916 with Matthew, Downton’s heir, face-down on a muddy field in The Somme. What Downton 2 loses in the potential for escapist fantasy, though, it makes up for by immersing us ever further into the lives of characters we know, and by piling up irresistible cliff-hanging questions.
Among them: Will middle-class Cousin Matthew survive the war? And if does will he and Lady Mary – whose indecision and snobbery drove them apart – find a way to be together after all? Or will Mary settle for the self-made publishing tycoon Sir Richard, an all-too-believable portrait of a powerful man willing to blackmail his way up the social ladder? (Remember that Turkish diplomat who was graceless enough to die in Mary’s bed?)
Will beautiful young Lady Sybil fall for the politically radical chauffeur? And what about the touching romance between the sweet maid Anna and the ever-serious Bates, trying to escape the clutches of his venal, estranged wife? Hard to believe there are two women fighting over middle-aged, portly Bates, but he does have a kind of sensuous smirk. (Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle make the couple strangely credible.)
While all this is happening, Matthew’s mother, a nurse, twists Lady Grantham’s arm and forces her to turn Downton into a convalescent hospital for soldiers. (Oh now where will the family dine?) Even though it was quite common (in both senses) for the army to take over great houses during the war, I was about to dismiss this twist as a blatant steal from Brideshead Revisited until I read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey, a new book about Highclere, the inspiration for Downton, and found that is precisely how the house was used.
Despite the upheavals, the series’ absolute best character remains herself. Maggie Smith as the matriarch, the Dowager Countess, scatters her incomparable withering remarks and chisels her every scene into a sharp little gem. She counsels Edith, the plain middle daughter who worries about looming spinsterhood, “Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle class.” Even the Dowager Countess has changed a bit though. She had once shuddered at the thought of Cousin Matthew inheriting Downton, and is now terribly saddened by the fear he may be lost in the war. “We’re used to Matthew now,” she says, not without affection. “Who knows who the next heir will be? Probably a chimney sweep.” Now that is the Downton hauteur I so love and miss, as Lady Sybil turns to nursing and Lady Edith drives a tractor on a farm.
And while we’re being picky – those war scenes. Very cheesy-looking. I’m no fan of War Horse, but the cheap, small-scale attempts at trench warfare here give you new appreciation for Spielberg’s polished ease.
Whatever its minor flaws, though, the new season of Downton Abbey is every bit as delicious as its fans might have hoped. Now those fans include Oswalt, who has promised to live-tweet the season premiere (7:30 Pacific Time on Sunday,@pattonoswalt). As his viewing of season one ended, the dear man declared, “I will soon be in need of smelling salts.” I do hope he has sufficiently recovered and shall Tweet.
Downton Abbey's season premiere is on Masterpece, Sunday at 9 ET in New York and other PBS stations.