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'Downton Abbey,' Season 4: Bad Lines, Extra Melodrama, Still Irresistible

by Caryn James
January 3, 2014 12:19 PM
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"Kiss me now!" says Lady Edith to her married beau, as they sit the middle of a restaurant.  "Kiss me!" says Cora, Countess of Gratham to the Earl of  Grantham as he heads off on a trip. "Kiss me!" says ... oh, at least a couple of other people in season 4 of Downton Abbey, as if writer and creator Julian Fellowes were intermittently channeling dialogue from some bad romance novel. The new season is just as addictively entertaining as ever, but this time you have to get past some truly wince-inducing lines.

How bad can the dialogue be? Lord Gillingham, one of the widowed Lady Mary's new suitors, declares his passion by saying, "You fill my brain!" I don't know, seems like there's a lot of extra space in that brain if he couldn't come up with something less laughable than that. This season's plots are also more melodramatic and forced than ever. And since we've already  had a visiting diplomat die in Mary's bed, "more melodramatic" really means something.

Yet it's more than habit or attachment to the characters that makes Downton Abbey still so alluring, despite these signs of creakiness. Just look at Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) or rather at her clothes. As the season starts -- in 1922, six months after Matthew's death -- she is moping around Downton, but she has the most glamorous little black dinner dresses to mourn in.  And she has one of the ultimate First World (or in her day, Colonial) problems: who will manage the Downton estate, which will eventually pass to her infant son, George?  Will Lord Grantham let his daughter modernize and try to get it into a healthy financial state? Despite the undertone of reality -- death, grief, money problems -- the series thrives because it still creates a world of irresistible, glamorous escapism, filled with emotionally messed-up, often scheming characters.  

Take a look at this preview to see just how mopey Mary is, and how lame the dialogue. "You must choose life or death," the Dowager Countess tells her granddaughter, proving that Maggie Smith can pull off any line. "And you think I should choose life?" Mary answers, as if she thinks there's chance Granny is asking her to throw herself on a pyre.

Dockery becomes more convincing once Mary begins to come to life again. (No spoilers in this review beyond what PBS has already revealed.) Penelope Wilton is touchingly  convincing throughout, as Isobel tries to grapple with her son's death.

And we all miss Matthew. If the surface appeal of Downton is its glittery escapism, Matthew was our way in, the middle-class lawyer who suddenly inherited wealth, as if he'd won the lottery. Most of us know that if we were transported back in time we'd land downstairs with the servants; winning the lottery is a fantasy we can relate to. Season 4 has not found any replacement nearly as effective, as class surrogate or a dream date. Allen Leech as Tom Branson comes closest. The former chauffeur is trying hard to fit into Downton, but he gets a begrudgingly small, half-baked plot of his own, which never catches fire.

He does, however, give the Dowager an opportunity for one of her best lines, as she observes him at a party and notes that his small talk is very small indeed. "Not everyone can be Oscar Wilde," Robert tells his mother, who instantly snaps back, "That's a relief."

It's fun to watch everyone, even the Dowager in her way, creep toward the Modern age, but none of Fellowes' plot devices work as well as the actors' ability to get past the contrivances. Cousin Rose (Lily James), the very young woman who was such an insufferable drip last season,  is now living at Downton, and less drippy. It's Rose who first crosses paths with the band leader Jack Ross, a black man who allows Fellowes to drag the issue of race into the series, not very credibly.

And Edith -- aka "Poor Edith" -- once more has a plot that should be much more intriguing than it is. After all, she's in love with a man who can't divorce his mad wife, as if she were Jane Eyre with crimped 20's hair. (Everyone has unflattering hair this season, one reason to be grateful we don't live in the 20's .)  It's hard to care about her, even before her story takes a predictable, over-the-top turn. Our detachment is not simply leftover resentment from season 1, when she ratted out Mary about Mr. Pamuk. Laura Carmichael makes Edith cold, and Fellowes makes her self-pitying  -- maybe more than either intends.  

 The downstairs drama involves a more serious misstep. I won't give away more than to say that it involves Anna (Joanne Froggatt),  comes along in episode 2, and is unnecessarily brutal for such a frothy show. And Downton has always been pure froth. Even when Bates was in prison for murder, we felt it was a matter of how he would find a way out, not when. The deaths of Sybil and Matthew were wrenching, but we knew  that Fellowes was writing out actors who wanted to go. As viewers, we have always negotiated that delicate balance between off-screen knowledge and in-the-fiction belief. The bargain is that we're knowingly entering a fantasy. The Anna plot violates the tone of that agreement by dragging in an event far too weighty to dismiss.

I wouldn't skip a single deliriously captivating episode, though -- even though I hope that in season 5 (already ordered) Fellowes shakes off his shadow romance-writer.

Here's a downstairs scene from the new season's first episode: 


One more thing to know: If you're waiting for Paul Giammati as Cora's brother and Shirley MacLaine as her mother, take a deep breath. They don't show up until the season's last episode.   

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