'Downton Abbey' returns, and this time it's all about the women

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 7, 2014 - 4:50 PM

Females rule the fourth season of PBS’s wildly successful drama, which returns Sunday night.  |  ★★★ out of 4 stars

Poor, poor pitiful men. They might think they still rule the roost at “Downton Abbey,” but the fourth season, which kicks off Sunday, is all about girl power.

It’s time for Lady Mary to get over the death of her husband and start helping to run the estate, much to the chagrin of her fuddy-duddy father. It’s time for Mrs. Hughes to replace Mr. Carson as the most reliable counselor on staff. It’s time for the Dowager Countess to stop operating as just a joke machine and actually show some compassion. It’s time for young Lady Rose to sow her wild oats with (gasp!) a black man. Most of all, it’s time for Lady Edith to unshackle herself from her pampered life and leap into both a journalism career in London and an affair with her married editor.

“She’s kind of doing a modern woman thing,” said Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith. “I like to think of her as the Carrie Bradshaw of the ’20s.”

It’s 1922, to be exact, and while England is still six years away from granting women the right to vote, change is in the air. Servant girls can go to restaurants or sneak out to bars, while society women can “slum” it at jazz clubs. And at the Abbey itself, the staff doesn’t seem to bow quite so deeply.

Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, jokes that the only thing missing from this season is a Spice Girls cameo.

“You really are in this era where these big houses started to disappear and when all of those old things are being cast aside,” said executive producer Gareth Neame. “The very first line ever written for this show describes the stately home as if it looks like it will stand forever. It won’t. That’s the hook, this dying of the light in which we’re increasingly going to see their world come to an end.”

The rise of women isn’t just historically accurate; it also plays right into the sweet spot of creator Julian Fellowes, who writes beautifully for actresses, particularly Maggie Smith, who has won two Emmys for her role as the Dowager Countess and also earned an Oscar nomination for her work in the Fellowes-penned 2001 film “Gosford Park.” (Look for her to go barb-to-barb again with Shirley MacLaine, who returns for the season’s final episode.)

“Julian really writes well for women,” said Joanne Froggatt, who portrays sweet-as-honey Anna Bates. “I always think of Maggie as his muse, the way she delivers those lines.”

What women want

Providing juicy roles for females turns out to be good for business as well.

The most-watched series in PBS history, “Abbey” is particularly popular among women, who make up roughly 70 percent of the audience. Ratings for Season 3 among women age 18-34 were 400 percent higher than the average “Masterpiece” broadcast, and 350 percent higher among women 35-49.

PBS executives are taking note. A number of female-oriented shows have followed “Abbey’s” success, including “Call the Midwife,” a British series about the adventures of a nursing convent coping with medical problems in the 1950s; it was the most-watched new series on BBC One since 2001. “Masterpiece” is also working on “Breathless,” about the female patients of an ob/gyn in 1960s London, and the “Pride & Prejudice”-inspired “Death Comes to Pemberley,” a look at what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet six years after marrying Mr. Darcy.

And is it just coincidence that Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff were named co-anchors of the “PBS Newshour” earlier this year? Maybe, maybe not.

Just how much we’ll see the “Abbey” women progress remains a mystery. A fifth season has been confirmed, and while Fellowes is busy developing an NBC series based in 1880s New York, he is unlikely to hand over the reins to anyone else.

“My producer hat says I’d love to see George [Lady Mary’s baby] fighting the Second World War in 20 years’ time,” Neame said. “I think that sounds like a very good piece of business. But Julian always says, ‘I don’t want to see our actors with walking sticks and powder in their hair.’ So I don’t think we’ll go onto the Second World War.”

In other words, we may see Lady Mary go to the ballot box, but we’ll never have the good fortune of seeing her slip into a pair of blue jeans.

 

Neal.Justin@startribune.com

612-673-7431

★★★ out of 4 stars
  • downton abbey

    ⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

    When: 8 p.m. Sundays.

    Where: TPT, Ch. 2.

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