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There are few television productions being made at this time that are as acclaimed and that have as devoted an audience as that of costume-drama Downton Abbey, which has returned with its fourth season (with a fifth already planned to air in the UK by the end of the year). The latest season has recently debuted on PBS stateside to an amazing tune of over 10 million viewers, marking it the highest rating dramatic program PBS has aired in decades - actually since the premiere of Ken Burn's Civil War in 1990. This sort of viewership signifies that Downton Abbey is not just a big, successful series on ITV (in the UK) and PBS, but one of the most successful dramas that currently airs throughout the entire world and on any network. The entirety of the show is written by its creator Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park).
It doesn't surprise me that the series is such a popular success. The characters, the costumes, the locations, and the writing make it one of the most distinctive series of the time. It is one of the most interesting and well-written period dramas. Yet some fans of the series might be a bit surprised that everyone (including new viewers) are tuning in with such devotion. The last season ended with a solid Christmas Special as the finale. However, It was an episode which resulted in divisive responses from viewers as one of the main characters was killed, reportedly because the actor in question no longer wanted to work on the show. Fellowes probably wasn't sure of how to pull off continuing the series at first, but he seems to have ultimately figured out how to do so - the rest of the cast of characters was too impressive, appreciated, and compelling for fans to tune out.
The premise of the series revolves around a fictional Yorkshire estate that goes by the name of Downton Abbey. It is a home filled to the brim with a cast of interesting characters from both upstairs and downstairs and the series alternates back and forth between exploring the lives of the wealthy Crawley family and the servants who work for them. The cast is one of the largest that I have seen for such a production and it includes a number of high-profile performers in a variety of compelling parts. There are around thirty roles that are main ones which is a huge aspect as to why the series works so well: there is always plenty of room for these characters to become developed and explored in the scripts by Fellowes. As the only writer on the show, I often feel the series closely resembles the pacing and consistency of a novel more so than other programs. Most series are incapable of managing to pull off this kind of attribute as there can sometimes be a variety of inconsistencies with a group of writers but this is not the case with the writing Fellowes brings to the table by himself.
The huge cast of characters consists of Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), who is the head of the Crawley household and who is supposedly supposed to run the business side of the estate (well, at least at first). Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) is his wife and the mother to the couple's daughters, Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). The family is going through a number of difficulties in this season. It is an especially difficult time for Mary because of the loss of her husband Matthew (Dan Stevens), though everyone is still trying to continue on despite the loss of Sybil. Edith also faces some major problems during the season (as she continues to have some severe relationship-related issues). Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is also trying to decide what to do with himself after the loss of his wife, Sybil. Tom continues to be an important part of the Crawley family despite his feelings of displacement.
Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) continues to be a series highlight as one of the funniest of characters as Robert Crawley's mother - who, in one way or another, always seems to find herself getting into the business of everyone else (and with some of the best dialogue). My personal favorite character is perhaps Isobel (Penelope Wilton), the mother of Matthew, a intelligent and wise person who seeks helping others and doing some good with her life. I consider her character one of the nicest and most sympathetic on the entire show. In attempting to move forward in season four, in some ways I found Isobel had the hardest difficulties in accepting the loss of Matthew and it is a huge issue for her during this season. Season 4 also dramatically expands the role of Rose (Lily James), a cousin of the Granthams. Throughout the season she finds herself trying to find ways to upset her mother and is a rebellious person who seems determined to find ways to cause a commotion.
The downstairs cast of characters includes Carson (Jim Carter), who is the butler of the Crawleys and who tries to keep things in some form of order along with Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), who is housekeeper and a huge asset to the family. Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) is Lord Grantham's Valet and the husband to Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the head housemaid and maid to Mary. In season four something truly horrifying and horrendous happens to Anna and the plot focuses upon this and the way it affects her and her relationship with her husband. Anna is one of my favorite characters on the show, and for any of the character's fans, this season is difficult to watch for what happens with this storyline. I felt devastated by what happens and it is a huge element of the entire season.
The other downstairs cast of characters includes the cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), who continues to be a lovable anchor of support to the other downstairs employees working in the kitchen, especially the sweet Daisy (Sophie McShera), who must accept that her relationship with another employee is not what she wanted it to be but can still be something special. The season also expands the role of some of the other supporting staff, especially Alfred Nugent (Matt Milne), who tries to branch out with a possible new career opportunity.
There is also, of course, Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), who continues to try and cause commotion amongst the upstairs and downstairs by spreading gossip and attempting to be a collector of information on everyone around him. Sometimes he seems to be on a better and gentler path but then he continues to try and get info for whatever reasons that only he seems aware of. This is probably one of the more soap-opera-ish roles o the series as a result but the actor continues to make it a compelling part of the show. This seasons sees the return of special guest star Shirley McLaine as Martha Levinson and it introduces a new guest character in the form of Cora's brother Harold (Paul Giamatti), who happens to be a playboy who feels a bit lost and alone despite his wealth and status. It was incredible seeing these two marvelous actors on the show and I hope that these characters continue to be on the series in the next season even if still in a guest capacity.
The final batch of episodes of Season 4 are some of the best that the series has seen since the beginning. I was impressed by the way in which Fellowes worked to bridge together some storylines and bring some resolve before the season end (while still leaving some aspects unresolved for next year). The last two episodes in particular (including what aired upon Christmas in the UK as The London Season) were favorites and I was glad to see that the concluding moments of the year were sweet-natured, romantic, and calming compared to everything which ended the prior year on a note of tense fandom with a character dying on Christmas day.
Downton Abbey continues to be a series that manages to discuss social issues of the times. Season 4 explores racial segregation and racism of the time with one character beginning a romance with a African American man. It explores issues that are often ignored in costume dramas despite the fact that it would be more historically accurate to explore such issues. It certainly marks the show as something approaching this genre with a different way from the majority of series that it would find itself being compared to. As far as news-related historical events, Season 4 also continues to expand the series connection to actual time-related things. In this season of the show the Teapot Dome scandal finds itself being a backdrop of the storyline.
I continue to find it impressive that this series is the work of an original story by creator Julian Fellowes, as this dramatically sets it apart as a unique television series. I must admit to being a tad underwhelmed by how many British productions are adaptations of previously done works, especially series that have been based on books and have been done again and again with only some details changed to add something unique. This is obviously not the case for all British productions but in terms of costume dramas and period pieces it's the norm more often than something different. Downton Abbey feels original, fresh, and distinctive as a result and it gives viewers a good reason to keep tuning in to see where the story may go as it develops.
Season 4 has a number of different directors than prior seasons, but the good news is that the quality of the direction is maintained at a high level of standards. I was a bit disappointed to discover that frequent director Brian Percival (and my personal favorite of the bunch) was missing as a director this season, but it was because he was making The Book Thief. Everyone who worked on this seasons still does commendable work so it's not as if fans shouldn't expect good quality directing to accompany the storytelling.
The production design and art direction continues to amaze me. The house itself and the genuinely splendid production pieces done to complement it is astonishing. The quality craftsmanship is impressive and adds to the effectiveness of the series. You do feel as if somehow the series takes you on a trip back in time for a little history lesson of sorts. In developing the often lavish costume designs for the series, Caroline McCall makes the series all the better with some astounding work throughout this season. An argument could be made that many of the viewers tune in specifically to see the fantastic work she does as a costume designer and it adds to the vibrancy and appeal of the show.
For a variety of reasons, Downton Abbey continues to be an impressive and well worth exploring series. I was a bit skeptical about how the series would manage to continue following the end of Season 3, mainly because the character that died in that season finale was one of my favorite characters and it seemed so out of place to kill off the character. Despite being an otherwise fantastic season I wasn't sure what would or could happen next. I am glad that any lingering doubts of mine were not met with a poor follow-up season.
While Season 4's first episode actually seemed a bit slower to start, the season continues to find ways to explore these characters, their world, and the home of Downton Abbey in a way that is compelling television far closer in scale to the work one finds on well produced films. The all around excellent work by the writer, directors, and other artistic individuals in the behind-the-scenes creative team helps complement the fine performances for another successful and well-made season.
The 1080p High Definition presentation given to Downton Abbey Season 4 is consistent with the high quality presentations of the previous seasons on the Blu-ray format. While the presentation technically includes some digital tinkering for a richer picture I did not find the image quality to be problematic or to have distracting issues.
Instead, the series is aided by good black levels, richly defined colors, and a pleasant picture that is usually smooth while not having any poor definition in the fine-tuned details of the contrast. It actually makes this amongst the better looking television series on Blu-ray and while it may not be perfection it's an incredible presentation nonetheless.
The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio stereo presentation is not entirely a match for the PQ as I would have appreciated a surround sound mix, but in terms of duplicating the show's design it's a close match with good fidelity and detail (especially for the series dialogue). The bump up to lossless audio is still something to appreciate and cherish. The high quality audio does aid in the overall excellence of this Blu-ray release.
This set includes The London Season, which acts as the Season 4 finale. I sort of dislike having to mention this as an 'extra' as it's essentially the season's conclusion and it should be with the set. However, in the United Kingdom fans have to purchase it separately from the main set at almost the same price so getting it all in one package from PBS is something that should be considered as a 'supplement' of sorts (even if it's a tad odd to think of it as being such).
The other supplements included on this set are three behind-the-scenes featurettes (each presented in High Definition):
Downton Diaries (13 min.) takes a glimpse at the making of the series as it is in the process of being made.
Making Of (12 min.) is a more traditional featurette with interviews about the various production aspects of the show and how it was made.
Meet the New Cast (9 min.) is a run-through of the cast of characters that joined the series during Season 4.
Downton Abbey continues to be one of the most compelling dramas on television. The writing by Julian Fellowes is superb and the performances and production design aspects are its match. I don't think there are any other costume dramas or period pieces of this variety that are even remotely close to matching it in quality and Season 4 manages to keep the series going on diligently despite an ending to the prior season that left some viewers feeling a little bit concerned about the quality of the show (given that a fan favorite character was killed).
With solid PQ/AQ and a decent selection of extras (including the special titled The London Season) this is a quality release well worth owning. As with previous releases it is also the original UK edition. If you are a fan you might also want to purchase it now as the season is currently airing on PBS in North America: If you would be interesting in marathon-viewing the season this set is a perfect way to do so... and to revisit Downton Abbey, of course.
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