Downton Abbey Season 4

Fourth season finally fell short of PBS hit's previous highs

Well, at least nobody drove a car off the road. No, the fourth season of “Downton Abbey” pretty much stayed in its lane – and also proved less satisfying, ultimately, than any of its predecessors, getting mildly dinged up, after a promising start, on two parallel tracks.

That’s not to say PBS’ breakthrough hit still isn’t enormous fun – or that viewers won’t be lined up waiting for season five, which is already loading up on prestigious new players – but rather that some of the events of season four, and this season’s major one, didn’t fully pan out.

While there’s good reason to give series creator Julian Fellowes considerable leeway (and SPOILER ALERT if you’re two seasons behind) over the death of Matthew Crawley – Dan Stevens wanted out of the show, and with such an enormous cast, the writer graciously obliged him – watching his widow Mary (Michelle Dockery) sift through assorted new suitors wasn’t nearly as much fun as it promised to be. Indeed, for some reason all the wooing pushed “Downton” closer to Jane Austen territory, with a lot of prolonged foreplay and flowery banter.

As for the downstairs contingent, the rape of Anna (Joanne Froggatt) by a visiting servant dominated most of the season, producing two threads: First, her painful efforts to conceal what happened from her husband, Bates (Brendan Coyle), straining their storybook romance; and subsequent concerns Bates might have sought vengeance, raising questions about whether those around them feel compelled to express their suspicions – at the risk of sending him back to prison. (Bates, incidentally, turned out to be a Batman-like figure, adept at all sorts of nefarious activities, including forgery. Who knew?)

Having made a public-relations splash with the casting of Shirley MacLaine as the mother of Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Downton’s American heiress, the show also stumbled a bit by going back to that well and introducing Cora’s playboy brother, portrayed by Paul Giamatti. While Giamatti was perfectly fine (it’s hard to remember him being bad in anything), the character didn’t really add much to the overarching drama, other than fretting about whether someone might love him for something other than his money.

Because season four left several plots unresolved – starting with Mary’s decision on which swoon-worthy blueblood to embrace – “Downton” will begin season five with no shortage of avenues to pursue. And to his credit, Fellowes does such a remarkable job juggling so many characters it’s hard to see anyone growing tired of the show soon. (A bit involving Jim Carter’s buttoned-up butler Carson trying to plan a vacation for the servants – getting gently prodded by Phyllis Logan’s marvelous Mrs. Hughes – was itself worth the price of admission in Sunday’s finale.)

That said, looking forward the “Masterpiece” production might need to make a relatively bold move – realizing that huge historical events (the sinking of the Titanic, followed by the onset of World War I) set the program in motion and beautifully framed season one, whereas this latest year simply became a period melodrama.

“Downton” can certainly drift along happily on the strength of its cast, but there’s a long lapse until the run-up toward World War II (dealt with, incidentally, in the update of “Upstairs, Downstairs”), raising questions about where the show goes during this intervening stretch.

Of course, when a series is this successful, the tendency is not to rock the boat, and even with half the audience this would still be a monster hit by PBS’ standards. Indeed, public television has rarely been so eager to discuss ratings.

Nevertheless, however impregnable “Downton Abbey” might appear, its makers should know better than anyone that you can’t always tell how big the icebergs are just from what you see on the horizon.

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