Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith in a scene from season...

Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith in a scene from season four of the Masterpiece TV series, "Downton Abbey." Credit: AP, 2013

THE SHOW "Downton Abbey"

WHEN | WHERE Season four premiere Sunday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Six months after the death (in an auto accident) of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), Downton Abbey is still in grief. Some have struggled to move on, but both his widow, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), and his mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), remain immobilized, while the rest of the family and staff wonder how to help them. The butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), head housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), valet to Earl of Grantham Robert Crawley, John Bates (Brendan Coyle), and his wife, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), are thrust into this role.

MY SAY In the dead of the night, snappish lady's maid Sarah O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) steals away to a new employ, leaving the Crawley family in the lurch. Coming as this does at the outset of Sunday's fourth-season opener, you're almost forced to wonder whether this is creator Julian Fellowes' own sly plot reference to Dan Stevens' departure at the end of last season.

No one left anyone "in the lurch" on "Downton." This is show business, with an emphasis on "business," and Stevens, a hot actor, had other opportunities -- or, as he told the Telegraph a year ago, "From a personal point of view, I wanted a chance to do other things."

Nevertheless, by leaving, he put the show in a tough position that it spends much of Sunday navigating. Even in the best and happiest of times, the moral superstructure of "Downton Abbey" works in a deliberate, unhurried way: Its stiff-upper-lip, All's Right with England code demands that "good" must come out of "bad," but that "bad" does need to be taken care of first. The absence of Crawley is bad and huge -- a black hole that sucks individual story lines and energy deep into its maw. Every core character is wracked -- Lady Mary above all.

But the good news is that most of all the other characters you love are back, behaving in ways you'd expect them to, with intriguing differences. Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) seems smaller in stature, but his vibrant and more-alive-than-ever mother, Violet (Maggie Smith), has grown. The cloak of grief, braided with her famed willpower, fits her quite well.

And the show remains, as ever, a thing of immaculate beauty. Controversy arrives later this season. There's a big shock by the third episode later this month. In the meantime, enjoy the languid charm.

BOTTOM LINE Slow start Sunday, but the drama's beauty and quality are intact.


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