Fans of all things English and aristocratic can rejoice that Downton Abbey makes its return to American TV screens on Jan. 8. While war and infirmity upset the order of affairs at the grand country estate, the fundamentals of the British import that won the Guinness world record for "most critically acclaimed television show of 2011" remain strong.
As it embarks on its second season, Downton takes less time developing the scandals and intrigues that keep the plot turning. Viewers not familiar with the show may have some trouble discerning the motives of conniving butler-turned-soldier Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and his partner in crime, lady's maid, O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran). But new trouble threatening to bring shame on the Grantham family and upset maid Anna's hard-won happiness should leave them just as hooked as faithful fans. And if that's not enough, there's always the new fiancée of Downton heir-apparent Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who may be hiding a past involvement with Lady Mary Crawley's new love interest, a slightly disreputable newspaper magnate.
If the ties that bind seem to be getting a bit overly tangled, Downton balances it with continuing exploration of class roles in a time of social upheaval. From the noblesse oblige of Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to the revolutionary impulses of his Irish chauffeur, audiences are offered multiple views on the shifting political tides without being manipulated to sympathize with one over another.
In other good news, the hilarious Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, along with the luminous Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, maintain the high performance standards set in its brilliant first season. Even better, during the four episodes screened for this review, the show avoids the brief racy moments that marked its beginning. The gay subplot surrounding Thomas still hovers about the edges, but isn't nearly so overt. The only blatantly adult scene, in which a couple is caught giggling under the sheets, is minor by primetime standards and treated as an immoral choice by an irresponsible girl. So despite somewhat soapier tendencies, Downton Abbey is maintaining its stiff upper-crust lip.