Viewers who look to “Downton Abbey” for loads of escapist splendor may want to temper their expectations when the wildly popular British drama returns for its fourth season on Sunday.
You'll remember the show left us on a very dark note as Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) was abruptly killed in a car accident. When stunned fans finally managed to stop their sobbing, they took to social media in fits of rage. How could lead writer Julian Fellowes concoct such a mean and brutal demise for such a beloved character?
The saga picks up six months later with a two-hour opener. The 1920s are roaring, but the family is still reeling — especially Matthew's widow, Lady Crawley (Michelle Dockery). Consequently, we've got an episode that is, for the most part, pretty bloody bleak.
Welcome to Downer Abbey.
Mary, clad in black, spends her days impassively staring out her bedroom window. She barely utters a word, and when she does, it's accompanied by a snappish attitude. As for little baby George, the new nanny tends to most of his needs. Mary really isn't ready to be a hands-on mama right now.
It can't be much fun, but Dockery does an effective job of conveying doom and gloom. Her eyes are downcast, her body limp and, if it's possible, her skin seems to be a whiter shade of pale. Poor Mary is so obviously on the existential ropes that I found myself wanting someone to crank up the “Rocky” theme song.
Of course, this somber mood is to be expected — and needed. Coming at the end of Season 3, Matthew's death was so sudden and shocking (at least for those who avoided spoilers), that it left us no time to process it all and grieve with the characters. By opening the season in this manner, it allows us to fondly recall the fallen character and achieve some sense of closure before moving on.
But is also saps energy from a show that last season kicked things off with a fun and lavish wedding. And it certainly doesn't help that, when it isn't focused on Mary, the opener spends plenty of time with Matthew's equally mournful mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton), and on the sad travails of glum Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle).
The latter, astutely described by a British critic as the show's “Charlie Brown,” was Matthew's personal butler. Now, he's unemployed and on a horrendous bad-luck streak. We're supposed to find some humor in his clumsy mix-ups, but his story line is more dreary than funny.
It makes you wonder how “Downton Abbey” plans to recapture some of the sizzle. Matthew was such a vital character, and his turbulent romance with Mary was such an integral part of the show that the void is glaring — and possibly problematic.
On a positive note, Bates (Brendan Coyle) is no longer in jail, so that awful story line no longer plagues us, and there are signs that poor lovesick Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), who is glamming it up in London, might finally achieve some romantic traction. Meanwhile, Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) is dealing with nanny issues. Also, new characters are on the way, including one played by Paul Giamatti.
And we obviously know that Mary's misery isn't going to last forever. By the end of the episode, in fact, she's beginning to rally, thanks largely to a pep talk from the always-perceptive Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), who instructs her to choose “life” over death.
Now, let's hope that, going forward, there's still lots of life in “Downton Abbey.”
BACK TO SCHOOL: Against all odds, the quirky little sitcom “Community” (8 p.m. Thursday, NBC), returns for a fifth season this week. Also back is creator Dan Harmon, who was so rudely fired after Season 3.
Things kick off with an episode called “Repilot,” in which the series awkwardly attempts to start over and revamp itself. As Abed (Danny Pudi) points out, it's just like “Scrubs” did in Season 9. Unfortunately, that didn't turn out so well.
Likewise, the “Community” opener feels a little flat and disjointed, and you might find yourself asking: Is there really a good reason for us to be following these characters through another year at Greendale Community College?
But as always, there are some fun moments. Jeff (Joel McHale) stars as a robot-fighting superhero in a low-budget commercial made by Abed, and the way the show deals with the departure of Chevy Chase's Pierce provides a laugh-worthy moment.
Next week, Jonathan Banks, one of the great bad guys from “Breaking Bad,” makes a very welcome debut as a grumpy criminology professor.