Note to those who put on sophisticated airs about watching “Downton Abbey”: You’re not fooling anyone. Calling PBS’s most popular series high art is like smothering French fries in processed cheese and calling it poutine. Just because people are playing dress-up and talking in British accents doesn’t hide the fact that this is just a soap opera — and a jolly good one at that.
The breakneck action picks up in 1922, six months after the death of Matthew Crawley. After a period of grieving, the staff and aristocrats at the manor are back at their version of “Survivor,” with alliances and betrayals around every corner. Writer Julian Fellowes manages to juggle nearly two dozen characters with a growing emphasis on the female characters, particular Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), who finally gets to show off a little glamor, and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), who has suddenly become the heartbeat of the series.
Fellowes sometimes leans too hard on tired clichés (“this is a fine kettle of fish”), but the actors, most notably Maggie Smith, make them sound like bons mots.
Not all of the storylines work — an affair between a black entertainer and the carefree Rose seems forced — but the action moves so fast that you’ll be hooked on a new scandal/crisis/romance in mere minutes.
To give anything else away would be bad manners, except for this: The news that American stars Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti are part of this season’s cast is a bit of a ruse. Neither will appear until the final episode. Tsk, tsk, PBS!