Fans of the British drama Downton Abbey have had constant spoiler crises, trying either to glean every detail of the overseas telecasts before the episodes air in the United States, or laboring to avoid any spoilers until they can see the show for themselves.
Well, here comes another challenge: the home-viewing release of Downton Abbey: Season 4 ($54.99 Blu-ray, $49.99 DVD) this week, before the fourth season has concluded its current run in late February on the Masterpiece series.
The set presents the series as it was originally televised in Great Britain. The two-hour season premiere in the United States was assembled from two episodes presented separately in the DVD and Blu-ray packages; the home-viewing version accordingly consists of nine parts, eight episodes and The London Season, which aired as a Christmas special overseas but will wrap up the fourth-season run on PBS stations on Feb. 23.
I don't want to get into spoilers about the fourth season, since some of you might not be caught up, but it has had its share of controversy, particularly about the way the women of Downton Abbey are treated. Having seen all this season, my enthusiasm based on the early season-four episodes began to wane. The series sacrificed a certain thoughtfulness in its melodramatic story lines in favor of a more soap-operatic approach. Even when interesting ideas are in play, about race and class and a changing nation in the 1920s, they are merely offered as plot devices and are sent on their way once the narrative has moved on to another romantic crisis or surprising (and, too often, not surprising) plot turn.
The show is ably acted; Maggie Smith is among the performers well above that measure. Indeed, so good and comfortable is the cast that, when Shirley MacLaine arrives for The London Season, she seems not on the same level — especially in a scene that seems designed only to let Smith and MacLaine go one on one.
Much as I objected to some developments this season, I watched every episode — and I have plenty of nagging questions for the next season.
Extras include segments on the making of the series and the new cast members.