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'Downton Abbey' returns Sunday, but a key character doesn't

Would milady care for a spot of tea before her soap?

Downton Abbey resumes tonight, and Yanks who have been trying desperately to avoid Season 4 spoilers online (the Brits got their fill of the hit period drama last fall) will finally get their steaming cup of Crawley house intrigue.

The show has become a global sensation and one of the U.K.'s biggest TV exports. The Season 3 finale broke records for PBS, with 8.2 million viewers — quadruple PBS's typical prime time average.

If you haven't yet binge-watched the first three seasons of the critically acclaimed series, there are spoilers ahead and some hints about what's to come this season, which kicks off at 9 p.m. on PBS with a two-hour season premiere.

One thing is for sure this season: The times are changing in the manor as the characters greet 1922. The clothes are a wee bit more risque (Higher hems! Bare shoulders!) and there's talk of a career for at least one female character. Diversity descends, and the show has its first black character.

Despite these evolutions, the relationships with the characters is still key to legions of fans who think the series brilliant. A fifth season has been ordered.

Season 3 was a devastating one for Downton fans, with the demise of major characters. First there was the heartbreaking episode in which Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) died in childbirth, revealing the paternalistic way that doctors dismissed medical concerns for women. And then there was Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who died in a car crash just after his baby was born in the last moments of the finale.

The show's creators had to dispose of Matthew somehow, since Dan Stevens was the one who decided he wanted to leave the show, but I'm skeptical how the series can keep fans riveted after losing what was, in my opinion, the show's central character. He was the heir with a middle-class sensibility who had a will-they or won't-they love affair with Lady Mary that finally ended in a happy union. He was easy on the eyes and easy to identify with, unlike the "What is a weekend?" sensibility of the upper-crust Crawleys.

Season 4 starts out in early 1922 and, rightly, in an air of gloom. It is six months after Matthew's death, and Lady Mary is a basket case who barely acknowledges her infant son. But he's not the only baby in the house. Adorable girl Sybil reminds everyone of her mother, and her ex-chauffeur father has to find his way as a fish out of water amid the upper class.

When last we saw them, Tom Branson had agreed to stay on at Downton to help run the estate. He and Matthew had managed to convince Lord Grantham that it was time to modernize in order to save the estate from financial ruin.

The handsome widower narrowly escaped scandal last season when housemaid Edna Braithwaite made a pass at him in his room while he was changing. Feeling like he led her on, Branson convinced Mrs. Hughes to give her a letter of recommendation instead of firing her. That kindness will haunt him in Season 4.

The first episode seems to spend more attention on the servants than on the swells upstairs. The love triangle, or rather rectangle, is still in play in the kitchen. Daisy loves Alfred. Alfred loves Ivy. Ivy loves Jimmy, and Jimmy loves to get a rise out of everyone.

The servants are a roiling mix that live for getting their digs in on each other. This made it especially fun to see the return of valet Thomas Barrow's shady side. He's still the master of sticking it to the servants who annoy him and making himself look like the hero in the process. Actor Rob James-Collier makes him an easy villain to love.

Upstairs, everyone seems determined to get Mary out of her funk, especially the Dowager Countess in an especially touching scene of a grandmother reaching out to a granddaughter in pain.

Take note of the clothing, purple being the transition color of half mourning. Mary and Isobel, Matthew's mother, cling to their black clothing and grief the longest, but there are signs of the gloom starting to lift.

This is still the early '20s, so there are hints of the coming Jazz Age as the upper class see their old standards being chipped away. Women are seen eating in public, for goodness sakes. This season adds the show's first black character, a jazz musician named Jack Ross, played by Gary Carr.

The hems are higher, the waists have dropped, there is more flesh and bare shoulders on display. Wild child Lady Rose is like a flower in a drab garden bringing jazzy music and dancing to the house. And middle sister Edith is the most modern of all, with gorgeous bright dresses, a career at a newspaper in London and a married love interest.

It may be a soap, but it is one of the highest order, with beautiful gardens and exquisite backdrops. Luckily for fans, the acting is also exemplary.

Michelle Dockery as the grieving Lady Mary doesn't need to say a word to show how shattered she is. Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess is still the master of the withering put-down, but she's also touching in her care of her family in the midst of heartbreak. Matthew's miserable valet Molesley provides a much-needed bit of comedy amid all this gloom as he suffers one humiliation after another that just keep getting funnier.

The premiere of Season 4 is understandably gloomy with the death of Matthew, but let's hope the rest of the season can shake off the huge hole left by Dan Stevens' absence. Guest appearances by Shirley MacLaine as Cora's blunt American mother and Paul Giamatti as her playboy brother sound promising.

Let's hope so, because a drabby abbey is just no fun.

Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at swynne@tampabay.com.

Tune in

Downton Abbey Season 4 opens with a two-hour premiere at 9 p.m. Sunday on Masterpiece Classic on WEDU Ch. 3.

'Downton Abbey' returns Sunday, but a key character doesn't 01/02/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 2, 2014 4:01pm]
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