TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Last night, the PBS anthology series "Masterpiece Classic" began importing the latest season of "Downton Abbey," the popular period costume drama set at a lavish but struggling British estate in the 1920s. Our TV critic David Bianculli has waited until the day after to discuss it, to join the next day water cooler conversation, because, he says, it's one of the few TV series that still generates some.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: When you think about what "Downton Abbey" has achieved and is continuing to pull off, it's actually pretty remarkable. In an era when the most acclaimed TV series of the decade is an edgy cable drama about a dying, meth making criminal, "Downton Abbey" draws similarly large audiences on broadcast TV - public TV at that - with an old fashioned soap opera about servants and household staffer and those they serve.

As season four begins on PBS, "Downton Abbey" is the most popular drama in the history of public television. When the whole of the TV universe is fragmenting, that isn't just impressive. It's almost impossible. But here we are. And having seen the first seven hours of the new season, I think I know why.

Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of "Downton Abbey," has crafted characters so well-rounded, so complicated and so interesting we're drawn to them no matter what the circumstances. The casting is first-rate and in many instances, perfect. The scenery and set design is beautiful to behold. And the many subplots are both rapidly paced and firmly telegraphed.

When new characters or conflicts are introduced, their trajectory seems obvious - yet every so often, Fellowes throws in a twist so unexpected, and often so unsettling, that characters as well as relationships can change dramatically from one episode to another.

This is the point where we begin talking specifics. One of those sudden shifts occurred at the end of Season 3, when a beloved character, Lady Mary's husband Matthew, died unexpectedly in a car crash. Season four begins six months later, with Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery, so despondent that she stays hidden behind the walls of Downton, as relentlessly grim and dour as a grown-up Wednesday Addams.

That goes on for a while, but only until Mr. Carson, who runs the downstairs, confronts Lady Mary to urge her to snap out of her misery. It's both dramatic and comical, because Mr. Carson, played with such British reserve by the deep-voiced Jim Carter, is himself like a human Eeyore. At first, Lady Mary pulls class rank, and scolds him for being so bold. But later, she comes downstairs to seek him out privately.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

JIM CARTER: (as Mr. Carson) My lady.

MICHELLE DOCKERY: (as Lady Mary) I'm sorry to bother you so late. But I think you know why I've come - to apologize.

CARTER: (as Mr. Carson) You have nothing to apologize for. I pushed into your room and I spoke impertinently.

DOCKERY: (as Lady Mary) I suppose you know my grandmother agrees with you.

CARTER: (as Mr. Carson) That doesn't surprise me. So does this mean you've decided to return to the land of the living? Because if so, I'm glad.

DOCKERY: (as Lady Mary) It means that I know that I've spent too long in the land of the dead.

CARTER: (as Mr. Carson) We were very fond of Mr. Crawley, you know, my lady. All of us.

DOCKERY: (as Lady Mary) I...I know.

CARTER: (as Mr. Carson) You cry, my lady. You have a good cry. That's what's needed now.

BIANCULLI: Mr. Carson is one of my favorite "Downton" characters, but there are plenty of others. Downstairs, I enjoy spending time with absolutely everyone, with a special nod to Brendan Coyle as Mr. Bates. Upstairs, there's the defensive stuffiness of Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham, who runs the estate but no longer owns it - and there's my most cherished character and performer of all, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess.

Fellowes hands her delicious lines in even the briefest scenes, and Smith nails them all, hammering them home with hilarious understatement as here, when she confronts Lord Grantham about his coddling of Lady Mary.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

HUGH BONNEVILLE: (as Lord Grantham) You must forgive Mary.

MAGGIE SMITH: (as Dowager Countess Violet) I do forgive her.

BONNEVILLE: (as Lord Grantham) She is broken and bruised and it is our job to wrap her up and keep her safe from the world.

SMITH: (as Dowager Countess Violet) No, Robert. It is our job to bring her back to the world.

BONNEVILLE: (as Lord Grantham) Well, I'm afraid that is not how I see it.

SMITH: (as Dowager Countess Violet) Really? Then I can only say that while I will overlook Mary's poor judgment I find it hard to overlook yours. Good night.

BIANCULLI: The parts of season four I've seen have plenty of comedy, plenty of drama, and lots of romance - as well as at least one stunner of a cliffhanger. But I haven't seen the season's final episodes, which is when Shirley MacLaine makes a return appearance, accompanied this year by another American guest star, Paul Giamatti. I can't wait - but in this case, I'm happy to.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

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