How excited is PBS about the second season of its Emmy-winning Downton Abbey? So excited that even Masterpiece Classic host Laura Linney seems on the verge of breaking into uncharacteristic fits of giggles in her introduction to the miniseries that returns Sunday night.
For the most part, the excitement is justified. And it says a lot about how well the characters are drawn and how much affection we feel for them that even though writer/creator Julian Fellowes allows the series to wobble off the rails a few episodes in, we react with warmth and perhaps even a few tears for these dear people.
In fact, the first two or three episodes of the new season are magnificent and even better than all of the first year of the show. The story of the Crawley family of minor nobles, trying to cope with the archaic law that restricts who may inherit the family manse and title, continues with the outbreak of World War I in the opening episode. Despite the family's initial reservations about the designated heir, cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), they've accepted him into the family embrace. In fact, Mary (Michelle Dockery) — the eldest of the three daughters of Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and his U.S.-born wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) — was proposed to by Matthew, but that relationship has fractured. As the second season begins, they are working on just being friends.
Both above and below stairs, the Crawleys and their staff try to keep things just as they were before the war. Although Downton has an Upstairs Downstairs household structure, what links all the characters is a shared determination to survive whatever comes their way. The noble valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) rely on their growing love to get them through. Before they can marry, however, Bates has to persuade his estranged but manipulative wife to grant him a divorce. Among the Crawleys themselves, Mary has to cope with her unresolved feelings for Matthew, especially when she learns he's engaged to someone else.
But by far the biggest challenge for both parts of the household is the war itself. Below stairs, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) try to keep the household operating despite food shortages and having to lose some staff members to the Army. Upstairs, the Crawleys and Matthew's do-gooder mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), have to adjust to Downton Abbey being turned into a hospital for wounded officers. Isobel relishes the notion of being in charge of the officers' care, but the military itself, not to mention Lady Cora, have other ideas about that.
By adding even more depth and nuance to the characters, Fellowes has not only made the early episodes of the second season gripping, he manages to keep our interest despite a noticeable shift midway through the new season. Plot twists and character shifts are tossed in randomly, almost as if Fellowes doesn't entirely trust his characters. No sooner has one character mentioned in passing that things might be better if another were dead than the second character buys the farm. That's called telegraphing and it doesn't really belong in Fellowes' script. Perhaps the most egregious move is to have another character, presumed dead, suddenly turn up, bandaged like Boris Karloff in The Mummy, making him unrecognizable to the household. This is the kind of thing one would expect from a daytime soap opera.
Beyond our affection for the characters themselves, our attention is held firmly by how the characters have been written, though. Fellowes might stumble with some hokey plot points, but he has created all of these characters with care, detail and a determination to make them three-dimensional, even when they are nudged into less-than-credible situations.
For the most part, the performances are superb, with the slight exception of Jessica Brown Findlay as the Crawley's youngest daughter, Lady Sybil. Charming as she makes her character, Findlay isn't quite in the same league as Bonneville, McGovern, Wilton, Stevens, Logan, Carter, Froggatt and Coyle. Again, however, the most delicious performance is delivered effortlessly by Maggie Smith as Robert's meddling mother. If there was a flaw in the first season, it was that Smith wasn't given more screen time. She's much more in evidence in the second year to remind us of what great acting is all about.
Obviously, the entire Downton enterprise has been conceived and executed with a collective eye toward quality. But it's hardly the only Masterpiece offering made this well, so what is it that sets it apart, what is it that makes it arguably as good as Upstairs Downstairs? It's really simple: Almost all of these people are only trying to do their best in life, against all odds, large and small. We believe them, we identify with them and we care about them. The emotional authenticity of Downton Abbey continues to make it a classic.