The Wait Is Over, Downton Abbey Returns to PBS Jan. 5

“Downton Abbey” Season 4.

“Downton Abbey” Season 4.

The eagerly awaited Season 4 of Downton Abbey returns to PBS’ Sunday schedule on January 5. It’s a great way to celebrate the New Year with all the history and drama that the Masterpiece Classic series offers.

I never thought I would enjoy watching a fancy soap opera, which is what Downton really is with all the intrigue, romance, jealousy, tragedy, ambition, and rivalry woven into the stories. But this classy show is something special. It has captivated audiences around the world. Can you imagine the Chinese following the British aristocrats and servants of Downton Abbey, and Dame Maggie Smith’s tart replies translated into Mandarin? Yet the great storytelling and likable characters seem to transcend borders and backgrounds.

The first three seasons have shown us bygone days and a fascinating post-Edwardian way of life. The stories have taken us on a journey from the sinking of the Titanic, through World War I, the financial problems of running a grand estate, and family tragedies. And thanks to the great characters created by producer-writer Julian Fellowes (Oscar-winner for Gosford Park), we have enjoyed the happy times and sympathized with the sadness in the lives of the people living upstairs and downstairs at Downton.

After last season’s shocking finale, change is in the air for Season 4 as three generations of the Crawley family have conflicting interests on the estate. The returning cast includes Maggie Smith (Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora, Countess of Grantham), Hugh Bonneville (Robert, Earl of Grantham), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Jim Carter (Carson the butler), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates), Rob James-Collier (Thomas), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), and Sophie McShera (Daisy).

Shirley MacLaine will be back playing Cora’s mother and Paul Giamatti will guest star as her brother, along with Gary Carr playing a jazz singer, and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, appropriately playing an opera singer, announced executive producer Gareth Neame at the last Television Critics Association press tour.

Neame reported that the Roaring Twenties and social change will add excitement to the new season. And Julian Fellowes will also explore some important questions, such as: How will Lady Mary (Dockery) cope now that Matthew is gone? Will she find love again? How will cousin Rose affect the social order at the majestic English country estate? What’s in store for Anna and Bates? How does Branson adjust to his new role as agent of the estate?

Neame said the upcoming season ventures into an era “when these grand houses started to disappear and old things are being cast aside. That’s a journey for however long this show goes on. I always remember back to the very first line that Julian wrote when he sent me the first page fleshing out the idea of the show, and it then became the first line of stage direction. It said—‘A wonderful house, a stately home in this beautiful park land. It looks as though it will stand for a thousand years. It won’t.’ And that is what we are going to increasingly see, that this world is coming to an end.”

There is change coming, he explained, “because all of the characters are headed into this modern age. Ultimately, the heart of the show is the story of these 20 to 25 characters that are much loved around the world and how they just all continue to try and get by and get on, and how they interact and how they make each other laugh and how they hate each other and have disputes and rivalries. That has been the kind of fuel for all of the previous seasons, and that continues.” Meanwhile, Season 5 is being planned.

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