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'Downton Abbey' returns in all its gentle, hopeful glory for Season 5

Mary McNamara
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
#DowntonAbbey returns and all seems precisely as we left it, and that's a wonderful thing, says @marymacTV

January is such a rigorous drag of a month. Diets to start, decorations to take down, jammed email in-boxes to face, not to mention the suddenly impossible parking at the gym. Fortunately, there is something sweet and solid to cling to even as you chuck all the remaining peppermint bark: the return of "Downton Abbey."

First, the bad news regarding early episodes of Season 5, which begins Sunday on KOCE: George Clooney is nowhere in sight. He recently appeared in the hilarious Christmas spoof done by creator Julian Fellowes and the cast for iTV's Text Santa project, but that appears to be the end of his commitment.

It's a shame, really; Clooney is one of a few big-name American actors capable of sliding effortlessly into the show's springy stride through history. Especially now that it's 1924 and we are deep in the Jazz Age, with all its troubling accouterments like radio and birth control.

Viewers will just have to make do with the beloved and still formidable regular cast, this year mercifully undiminished by death or wee-hours departure. All seems precisely as we left it at Downton. Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) still rules the upstairs, Carson (Jim Carter) the down. Thomas (Rob James-Collier) schemes, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) preens (albeit in her particular deadpan way), and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) has all the best lines.

Ah, but as has been implied each and every season since the show premiered four years ago, Everything Is About to Change. Seriously. This time for sure. Slowly, perhaps, because it's still Yorkshire, but look to the ladies and you'll see.

The brownshirts may be gathering in Germany, but at Downton love is everywhere, albeit with surprising consequences. Lady Mary is no longer so sorrowfully vowing a life of celibacy, and she's got some rather modern ideas about how she can ensure that her second marriage is as happy as her first. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is regretting her shame-driven decision to give up the daughter she had with her still-missing lover/editor. A feisty young radical is reconnecting the gentrified but still Irish Tom (Allen Leech) with his political roots, Lady Rose (Lily James) remains a boundary breaker, while both the Dowager Countess and her feisty frenemy Isobel (Penelope Wilton) find they are not above, or beyond, being wooed.

Downstairs, Thomas is still plaguing poor Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), but she's pushing back. As is Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan). Though still an angel of good sense, she has finally drawn herself to the same height as Carson. The Bateses (Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt) appear to be in trouble with the law again (yawn), but Daisy (Sophie McShera) continues to fight for her place in the narrative hierarchy.

Just in time too; as Carson (Carter) bemoans on more than one occasion, they are a dwindling group. The days of the multiple footmen and seven types of maids have surrendered to the modern world. Only a few faithful remain.

If it all sounds very familiar, well, it is and it isn't. Until one of the characters spins off into his or her own show (oh, please, let it be Thomas!), "Downton Abbey" isn't quite a franchise (although Kim and Kanye did just name their new house after Highclere Castle, where "Downton" is filmed). But certainly Fellowes has developed a formula. A solid, dependable and successful formula, with "dependable" being just a few shades warmer than "predictable."

That the Text Santa spoof seemed such close kin to the actual show — it ends with the staff pooling their life savings to save Downton, which could easily happen in the actual narrative — says much about Fellowes' ability to embrace the soap without ever quite drowning in it. Time and place allow a natural balance of character and caricature — to American eyes especially, the world of "Downton" is as alien as that of "Doctor Who" and so is allowed its own internal rules and regulations. Set in the eventful period between the two world wars, "Downton" comes gift wrapped in elegance of history, and each season has cleverly used Big Issues to ground the more absurd plot twists and character inconsistencies.

This season, these include fallout from the Russian Revolution, anti-Semitism, the rise of labor and the relaxation of sexual standards, all against the darkening scrim of Germany. But even as the seeds of the Holocaust are sown and Europe prepares to fall, hope still blooms in Yorkshire, where the Crawleys remain miraculous to the point of unbelievability in their tolerance and flexibility. Social censure and bigotry dare not darken Downton's threshold no matter how they may mourn the "old" ways.

But then that's why we love it so. As the spoof pointed out, if the grapefruit spoons are authentic, nothing else matters really. We get a period of great political and social turmoil filtered through characters of Psych 1 modernity, our history tidied up by a benevolent curator who feeds it to us gently, with sweet tea and scones.

For many, it's become the perfect way to begin the new year.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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