Don’t Spoil "Downton Abbey"

After a too-long wait, the fourth season debuts Sunday with change – and spoilers – in the air.

By Jere Hester
|  Friday, Jan 3, 2014  |  Updated 10:47 AM PDT
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"Downton Abbey" returns for a fourth season on Jan. 5, on PBS.

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During the debut season of "Downton Abbey," which landed on these shores in 2011, Carson the butler bristled as he grappled with some 1912 technology: the Grantham estate's first telephone.

His comical frustration helped set the tone for an alternately humorous, dramatic (and melodramatic) series in which change is as much a character as the Crawleys’ extended family, their servants and the Yorkshire manor they share. Three years (in real years) and about a decade (in “Downton Abbey” years) later, the series returns to PBS Sunday for a fourth season, with technology and time not fully on its side.

That’s because, at least in part, of the silly 15-week wait between the season’s debut on Britain’s ITV and its US bow. For nearly four months, fans on this side of the Atlantic have been either dodging Internet-delivered spoilers or finding means of watching “Downton Abbey” that wouldn’t meet Lord Grantham’s high moral standards.

In August, PBS President Paula Kerger chalked up the delay to, among other things, building anticipation (“The fact that word-of-mouth travels after it airs in the UK has actually benefited us … we kind of don’t want to mess with that if it’s working so well,” Entertainment Weekly quoted her as saying). 

The scheduling time lords at the BBC, though, likely wouldn’t agree with that strategy: The British broadcaster turned the TARDIS into an international buzz machine when November’s “Doctor Who” 50th anniversary special aired in 75 countries at the same time, drawing a reported 77 million viewers. A few hours usually separates showings of regular “Doctor Who” episodes in the UK and US.

PBS has relented – to an extent – with another popular British import, “Sherlock,” which arrives for its third season Jan. 19, 18 days after UK audiences got a New Years gift. The BBC also posted a seven-minute online mini-episode of “Sherlock” on Christmas Eve for all to see – not a bad way to stoke hype across international lines.

The PBS’s old-school approach to “Downton Abbey” comes as the Grantham crew faces the challenge this season of going on after the death of Matthew Crawley, who was trying to drag the last vestiges of British feudalism into the modern era with a minimum of pain for the estate’s upstairs and downstairs contingents.

The 1920s will have to roar on without him, even as the British lion and much of the rest of the world is headed for an extended winter of discontent. Part of the fun of “Downton Abbey” is knowing, at least writ large, what's coming, even if it’s unclear exactly how the Lady Grantham, Lady Mary, Thomas, Bates and the rest will fare. Even if you’ve avoided all the spoilers, it’s a good bet that the creative team will stick to this formula: Something bad happens to somebody. Repeat.

The show’s camp value aside, fans are deeply invested in century-old fictional characters who have become part of the popular culture, perhaps as best seen in parodies (“Downton Arby’s,” Jimmy Fallon’s “Downton Sixbey”) and online memes – many featuring insults hurled by Maggie Smith’s acerbic Dowager Countess, a character whose barbs cut across time. She’s with Carson, though, on the value of the telephone: "Is this an instrument of communication or torture?"

It’s time to embrace technology – including the Internet, where you can find this Season 4 preview as we patiently await Sunday’s return of “Downton Abbey”:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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