Last year, something magical and rare happened on PBS. A lavish period piece called "Downton Abbey" not only won critical raves and a bundle of shiny awards, it turned into a ratings powerhouse. And Ken Burns had nothing to do with it.
"Downton (not Downtown) Abbey" was a late Edwardian-era saga about a family of embattled British nobles and their servants. Set in a breathtaking country estate, the production contained everything you could want in a drama: colorful frocks, sibling rivalries, class conflict, sex, scandals and skulduggery. While rekindling memories of past costume confectioneries such as "Brideshead Revisited" and "Upstairs, Downstairs," it thrilled audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Downton Abbey," originally conceived as a miniseries, was such a success that it spawned a second -- and more expansive -- season that gets under way this weekend on "Masterpiece Classic." Meanwhile, production soon will begin on a third installment. How lucky for us.
"Downton" devotees had better brace themselves for drastic change. Season 2 kicks off in 1916, not amid the genteel serenity of a huge manor house, but the chaotic turbulence of World War I. Viewers immediately are plopped onto the battlefield of Somme, where Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), the dashing heir to the Downton estate, is valiantly fending off enemy forces.
When the bullets aren't flying, we learn that Matthew has gotten engaged -- but not to the haughty Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who played hard-to-get and dragged her feet for so darn long that he went looking for love elsewhere. Mary has found a new love interest, but it's clear she still carries a torch for Matthew.
Meanwhile, the war is playing havoc with the daily routines and social order of Downton, which has opened its doors to convalescing soldiers. Suddenly, the old rules don't apply. For example, Mary's sweet sister Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), who was accustomed to being pampered, is now tending to injured warriors as a Red Cross nurse and finds herself coping with the brazen romantic advances of the family's chauffeur, of all people.
Even old-school butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is having to adjust. Because the war has taken some members of his young male staff, he has been forced to allow maids into the dining room of the Earl and Countess of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) -- positively shocking.
Some residents, however, haven't exactly greeted the changes with a stiff upper lip. Observing all the soldiers flooding into the formerly private halls of Downton, Violet (Maggie Smith), our favorite sneering busybody, mutters, "It's like living in a second-rate hotel, where the guests keep arriving and no one ever leaves." Yes, it's great to have Smith back to toss off snide lines and provide comic relief.
Season 2 also delivers a fiendish new villain in Maria Doyle, who plays the estranged wife of kindly valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle). She's privy to a family secret that could blow the lid off Downton, and she's threatening to go public as part of a vindictive scheme to keep Bates from marrying Anna (Joanne Frogatt). It means further delays for Bates and the adorable Anna, who have put their romance on hold for so long that no amount of cold showers could suffice.
Let's be honest: "Downton Abbey" does indeed provide a bit of a history lesson and taps into potent themes of ambition and power. However, it's the soapy twists, not intellectual rigor, that made it an addictive, accessible hit and spawned a six-page spread in Entertainment Weekly -- something virtually unheard of for a PBS production.
However, we do have our quibbles. Some of the characters are so simplistically drawn that it's laughable. On the other hand, we love these characters so much and we're having such a jolly good time that we just can't resist "Downton Abbey."