The unexpected success of the British series Downton Abbey, shown in the U.S. in 2011, caused more of a pop culture stir than anything PBS had broadcast in a long while. That delightfully soapy, upstairs-downstairs look at life in the grand, cold heap owned by the Earl and Countess of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) was so cleverly constructed by creator Julian Fellowes that its importance to public broadcasting can hardly be exaggerated. Suddenly, PBS had its own version of Mad Men crossed with The Bachelor — that is, a critically acclaimed period-piece romance that was simultaneously classy and commercial.
Now comes Downton Abbey’s second season, and I’m afraid we have to greet it with a bit of an “Oh, dear.” Where the original Downton had snap, the new one has a lot of slack. The first Downton was broadcast here in four parts; the second is stretched out to seven. Written once again by Fellowes, it occasionally milks our fondness for his juicy characters dry. Important players fall in and out of love repeatedly, and some fall sick and recover — or don’t. New characters are introduced, some of whom aren’t as compelling as the original cast. And then there’s that damnable World War I, which plunges our very favorite, Dan Stevens’ Matthew Crawley, into mucky trenches for far too long, uttering lines that P.G. Wodehouse would cringe to write (“We’re nearly there, chaps, just hold fast!”).
But all that said, full credit must be given to the core cast and the way they energetically push the massive plot along. Bonneville and McGovern prove to be the most resilient, with McGovern making Cora the new season’s most emotionally complex character. Stevens’ Matthew and Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary are once again excellently subtle (except for the frightening moment when they…burst into song!). Matthew and Mary are best as lovers kept apart, as are their downstairs counterparts, Brendan Coyle’s Mr. Bates and Joanne Froggatt’s Anna. And once again Maggie Smith, as the Countess Dowager of Grantham, brings the much-needed vinegary humor. Whether referring to Matthew’s new romantic interest (Zoe Boyle’s mousy Lavinia) as “that little blond piece” or wondering whether new technology like the telephone is “an instrument of communication or torture,” Smith is invaluable.
Despite all the repetition and longueurs, this Downton Abbey frequently works, as the first one did, as a peppery little trifle. Except now it’s a big trifle, one all too capable of collapsing under the weight of melodrama. How much of that weight you can withstand will determine how much you enjoy the production. B+