Downton Abbey, Season 2, PBS

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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‘Downton Abbey’: Season 2 on PBS Masterpiece Classic

Written and created by Julian Fellowes
Directed by Ashley Pearce, Brian Kelly, Andy Goddard, James Strong and Brian Percival
Starring: Starring Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern, Dan Stevens
Masterpiece on PBS stations, Sundays, Jan. 8 – Feb. 19, 2012, 9 p.m. ET/PT

Happy New Year! And to start it off on a high note, “Downton Abbey,” the spellbinding costume drama created by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes, returns for a splendid second season of fascinating television. Don’t miss it.

It’s difficult to outdo the first season, in which we were introduced to the intriguing lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and the servants who work for them. Yet, in Season 2, with the crisis of the Great War affecting the characters above and below stairs, the diverse ways in which they cope and adapt to challenging circumstances bring greater depth to their performances.

Season 2 begins in 1916, two years after the end of Season 1. The Right Honourable Robert Crawley, the current Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), and his rich American wife, Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), still reside at the large and elaborate Downton Abbey with their three yet-unmarried daughters, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay). Robert’s mother, Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), is at her haughty and imperious best. Whenever Maggie Smith appears, she commands the set and has all the best lines.

The three sisters have matured; their sniping has ended as their world expands beyond the frivolities they enjoyed in Season 1. Mary Crawley and the presumptive heir, Matthew Crawley, now a soldier, continue their pas de deux. Parts of Downton Abbey become a refuge for rehabilitating soldiers. Mathew Crawley’s mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), assumes that she will be in charge of the soldiers’ care, but may have overstepped her boundaries.

Newcomers in Season 2 include new servants, an illegitimate baby, a newspaper magnate and a fiancée. The action includes an arrest for murder, many soldiers’ deaths and injuries, a possible new Crawley heir, new romances, and the 1919 flu epidemic.

The War breaks down barriers between the Crawley family and their servants. This upsets some while it pleases others. The first-rate cast of servants still includes Mr. Carson the butler (Jim Carter); O’Brien the lady’s maid (Siobhan Finneran); Thomas the footman (Rob James-Collier); John Bates, Lord Grantham’s valet (Brendan Coyle); and Mrs. Hughes the housekeeper (Phyllis Logan). The downstairs servants have their own dilemmas, but they look forward to social equality, new opportunities, and greater independence after the war.

Parts of Season 2’s story line might have verged toward melodrama, had the acting and screenplay not been so outstanding and robust. In the first episode, so much new plot was unwinding so quickly that I found the episode moving faster than I was taking it in. Yet at the same time, the two-hour length of the episode made it drag just a bit. The remaining episodes I watched were all an hour in length and were enthralling.

Critics were sent the first six episodes. We were not sent the two-hour finale that airs on February 18, 2012. It’s titled “The Christmas Special,” and will be shipped later; therefore, I don’t know the ending yet either. The last episode that I saw ends on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918.

Although we’ll all be unhappy to see Season 2 end, there is good news. Season 3, with eight episodes, is in the works. It will be set in the early 1920s and will continue to follow the Crawley family and their servants. I’m already looking forward to it.

©Emily S. Mendel 2012 All Rights Reserved

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