The drama of war comes to ‘Downton’
Second season stories grow richer - and funnier
Like fine bourbon makers the Brits prefer to craft their TV shows in small batches. And when it comes to “Downton Abbey’’ the results are similarly worth savoring.
After a successful run across the pond, the Carnival/Masterpiece coproduction begins its long-awaited second season on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) Sunday at 9 p.m. flush with the glow of multiple Emmy wins and Golden Globe nominations.
Dedicated viewers who gobbled up the addictive first set of episodes will be delighted by the adventures, complications, and entanglements in store for denizens both upstairs and down in the Earl of Grantham’s grand household.
As the first season ended with the declaration of war, the second season begins two years later in 1916, not on the lush grounds of Downton but in the thick of the battle in France.
Much of the second season, which unfolds over the course of WWI, illuminates the ways, both profound and superficial, in which global conflict can change local lives. Some men enlist, others are called up, and a sidelined few long to fight. Several of the women get involved in the war effort, as does Downton Abbey itself, thanks to the ever-bustling, do-gooder cousin Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton).
There are major medical crises for a few characters, and the breakdown of social and class barriers for others. If electricity and the telephone were eyed warily last season by the Dowager Countess Violet (a winningly droll Maggie Smith), don’t get her started now on the shortening hemlines and hairdos. Smith is, however, allowed to show an even further softening of her character as she endeavors to keep her loved ones and servants out of harm’s way.
Some of these changes are played to the kind of comic effect that “Downton’’ does so well, as when plain, neglected middle sister Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) dives wholeheartedly into driving and farm work, or in the ongoing battle of wills between Violet and Isobel, which is a divine bit of dueling between Wilton and Smith.
Viewers are likely to be reaching for the tissue box more often on this go ’round. Lives of beloved characters are lost, the ill-fated romance between housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and the stalwart valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) continues to be thwarted, and pregnancies and impending weddings create serious emotional drama.
The ladies of the house remain in limbo romantically as Edith continues to fish without bait and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) flirts with the hunky Irish chauffeur. The off/on/never/maybe romance of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) - now a soldier - continues to ride the roller-coaster rails even as she is coerced into a liaison with ethically dubious newspaper mogul Sir Richard Carlisle (a deliciously snaky Iain Glen), and Matthew finds love with Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle).
Lord and Lady Grantham are both given some meat to work with this season as well, and Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern prove equal to the task as the future of Downton Abbey and their places within it morph and change.
At its heart, of course, “Downton Abbey’’ is a soap opera. But creator-writer Julian Fellowes (an Oscar winner for “Gosford Park’’) and his crew of producers rarely misstep in terms of directing the cast to overplay or overheat the antics. Rarely do they strain the credulity of real situations or the constraints of the time. (Yes, the word amnesia does rear its head this season but, hey, no evil twins!)
Most importantly, the ensemble is uniformly gifted and in sync, helping to submerge viewers in the intrigue without winking, but offering real subtextual pathos and yearning at a time of great change in a place where great change was not always welcome.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com.