At this point, a new season of “Downton Abbey” is much like a visit from old friends. Sure, the stories are familiar — perhaps even just variations on what you’ve heard before — but it’s more about sharing their company and the feelings they rekindle. So after some awkward aspects to season four, the new year returns exploring many of the same issues while adding wrinkles to old ones, as Julian Fellowes continues to masterfully juggle a vast assortment of players upstairs and downstairs. Modernity is the overarching theme, but that won’t prevent admirers from dutifully returning to savor “Downton’s” Old World charms.
In some respects, the latest episodic flight (all but the Christmas episode were made available) feels less like Season 5 than Season 4, Part B, what with so much unfinished business to transact. That’s not a serious knock on the show, necessarily, although the latest storyline doesn’t contain the sort of signature events that have dictated the course for past runs.
It’s 1924, meaning roughly a dozen years have passed since the narrative officially began, with the devastation of World War I in the middle.
Yes, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) still presides over a sweeping estate, but the encroachment of progress can be seen everywhere, including that new-fangled radio (or “wireless”) that everyone’s prodding him to acquire, which becomes practically mandatory when the King agrees to speak via the contraption.
Beyond that, the Labor Party is in power, which adds to apprehensions among the aristocracy while stirring democratic and socialist impulses, brought into focus by one-time chauffeur Tom (Allen Leech) having befriended a teacher (Daisy Lewis) who harbors scarcely hidden contempt for all that his lordship and the great manor represent.
Romance, meanwhile, preoccupies several generations of the women in the house, with Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) still sorting out her suitors since becoming a widow; Isobel (Penelope Wilton) being courted — much to the amusement of her frequent sparring partner, the Dowager (Maggie Smith); and young Rose (Lily James) finding her own potential beau, albeit with the inevitable complications. Even Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) finds distraction in the form of a visiting art critic, played by Richard E. Grant.
Elsewhere, poor Edith (Laura Carmichael) pines for the child she was forced to give up, having placed her with a local farmer, who says sympathetically — in a perfect demonstration of Fellowes’ poetic dialogue — “We need a way for you to live the truth without telling the truth.”
Therein lies much the intrigue upstairs, while the downstairs is still primarily roiled by the season-four rape of Anna (Joanne Froggatt), and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the brute that victimized her, while Thomas (Robert James-Collier) once again appears intent on stirring up trouble.
Without counting lines, there seems to be even more of the Smith-Wilton pairing this time around, and every scene featuring them is an absolute gem, worthy of its own “Golden Girls”-esque spinoff. There are also an abundance of lavish dinners, several of which become uncomfortable, evidence of the kind of biting exchanges Fellowes can conjure even when everyone’s clad in fabulous gowns and tuxedos.
For all its greatness, “Downton” is partially a victim of its success: It’s become such a cottage (or make that castle) industry that grumbling about the property looking a bit run-down is inevitable. PBS will even air a one-hour special presented by historical adviser Alistair Bruce, “The Manners of ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” immediately after the premiere.
Actually, it’s kind of cute watching PBS behave like a commercial enterprise, endeavoring to cash in on its highest-rated property. Yet having set the standard for British costume dramas commercially and artistically, “Downton” also must bear the weight of expectations associated with the rarefied strata it occupies — a high-class problem, certainly, but as the program’s central family might attest, its own kind of burden nonetheless.