Want to bet that, around the world, every Monday morning review of last Sunday’s PBS premiere of the fourth season of “Downton Abbey” begins with the caution “spoiler alert”?
Pay attention, those of you who’ve missed the first three installments of the wildly popular English drama: For you, “spoiler alert” operates on two levels: First it warns you away from the review itself, for fear you’ll fall in love with the series, as so many of us have done before you, and then when you proceed to catch up, with boxed sets of the three earlier seasons, you’ll miss out on the supreme joy of having your teeth rattled to the back of your tonsils by the twists and turns in the hyper-kinetic plot.
The second part of the spoiler alert suggests you avoid the debut episode of the fourth season altogether. That’s because you may not, in fact, fall in love with “Downton Abbey” should you chose this new episode as your entry point to the series. It’s, well, bleak.
For instance, while the original three seasons began with a shot of a Labrador retriever’s white rump as it wig-wags up a hill to the uplifting sounds of Purcell (or Bach or somebody), the new season opens with spooky music and a gothic shot of a castle, dark and forbidding save for a single lamp glowing in a top-floor room.
And then there’s poor young slim widow Lady Mary in a black silk Chanel (or Lanvin or somebody’s) gown. She intones her few lines in a voice so lifeless that, should the Grim Reaper ever show up at your door, he’ll arrive first, in advance of Lady Mary, to give you a moment to prepare before she scares you to death. (Hint: she has what the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders calls “complicated grief.”)
The legion of servants will look like a Hieronymus Bosch canvas. Why are they here, you’ll wonder: they should be working for Disney World. Upstairs in impossibly grand rooms, aristocrats sit with titanium spines, hands clenched in laps, posh-accented conversations so banal, you’ll wonder why they resist bolting for the nearest pub, as does one of the under-maids later on, to get a little “tiddly.”
This past Sunday, an SRO crowd (the event was sold out within the first 24 hours of ticket sales) of Island Downton fans, under the aegis of PBS and our local NPR station, WCAI, with Mindy Todd, Steve Junker, et al on hand, enjoyed tea and crumpets (er, sugar and ginger cookies; who knows what crumpets really are?), and then were treated to a screener of the premiere, hours before the rest of the hoi polloi in our country viewed it on their tallies (sorry, you can’t stop using Brit expressions after a Downton episode; not that they had tallies in that bygone age).
Some of our Islanders ransacked their closets for proper costuming: The fourth season places the action in 1922; the first season exploded to life in the run-up to World War I. A quick chat with local fans told me we’d all had ample time — nearly a year — to recover from the devastating effects — spoiler! spoiler! turn back here! — of the young hero Matthew Crawley’s death under the wheels of an oncoming motorcar, all in the last nine seconds of the third season finale.
Shelley Christensen, on the Oak Bluffs desk of WCAI, voiced the opinion that Matthew, as sole male heir (oh, those stupid stupid old laws), now removed from play, clears the path for the women of Downton to get strong. And Ms. Christensen was right! Although sitting through a two-hour overture to what is normally fed to us in hour-long tasty morsels, was tedious at times, the final blaze of a woman coming to the fore is a tonic to the senses.
Another intriguing notion was advanced by Lynn Christoffers, author and artist of the recently released book, “Cats of Martha’s Vineyard.” She wondered why no cats are ever glimpsed in the series; they seem a natural to Abbey life. Together we came up with two Persians — a brother and a sister — for the imperious Dowager Countess played by Maggie Smith. We thought a Siamese would roam between Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s chambers. Downstairs a calico, tabby, or marmalade cat would slink around the kitchen on the hunt for scraps.
Last Sunday’s event proved the value of watching this sumptuous drama on the big screen: Man oh man, those tapestries look rich and grand! And suddenly you can’t help but notice the enormous Turner (or Watteau or whomever) that graces the breakfast room as large as most VFW halls, where Lord Grantham, Tom-the-chauffeur married to the late Lady Sybil, and Lady Edith all plan their day, each schedule (pronounced “shhedual”) chock-full of hidden agendas.
For those of us who’ve followed Downton all along, after this sometimes dispiriting kickoff for the fourth season, I believe we’re ready to move forward. Now that all the crepe-hanging is out of the way, we can get on to more pressing matters such as: Will Lady Edith ever find a sillier gown than the taxidermied peacock she wore to meet her lover at the swanky London restaurant? Will that same lover really become a German citizen just to divorce his lunatic wife? (The Germans permitted frustrated spouses to do that; well, that’s one saving grace in an other otherwise runaway berserk culture.)
Finally, will the writers please give Maggie Smith’s character more juicy lines, as they’ve done in the past? And thank God the actress who plays Lady Mary finally snaps out of that unbearable gloom: I have it from trusted sources that her agent called her earlier to say she was up for the role of Hamlet’s father’s ghost.