Life is hard; Downton Abbey is easy. Nearly four years after ending its six-season run, the show already feels like a relic of some kinder, gentler era of television; a warm PBS crumpet in a cold-donut world. The screen may be bigger, but the decorous upstairs-downstairs melodrama still revels in small moments: the candy-apple red of a mail truck; the rolling green of a manor lawn; the waft of lavender in the air as various soapy subplots work themselves into a gentle, easily resolvable lather.
Here, the plot impetus is a royal visit (Queen Elizabeth’s grandparents, actually, so think of it as a sort of Jazz-age prequel to The Crown). Word that the monarchy will be making an overnight stop at Downton sends the manor into a frenzy of silver-polishing and social anxiety, but most things otherwise remain the same: Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) keeps her internal temperature set to cucumber; once-working-class widower Tom (Allen Leech) pressure-tests his political loyalties; the Earl and Countess (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) waft serenely through drawing-rooms; and the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith) maintains her status as the verbal ninja of landed British gentry. (“I don’t argue,” she tells one naysayer with withering calmness. “I explain.”)
There are various bits about the imperious royal household staff clashing with the locals; secret pregnancies and love affairs and assassination attempts — even a sensitively explored gay-awakening subplot for closeted butler Thomas (Robert James-Collier). But nothing in creator Julian Fellowes’ script ever strays too far from its genteel comfort zone; solving problems in Downton-world is like unknotting a tangled necklace: There may be difficulties, but rest assured that by the 122-minute mark, as above, so below; all will be right and dreamy with the Abbey. B