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DOWNTON ABBEY: SEASON FOUR
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Mark Wiechman
Technical Specs by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Kevin Doyle, Joanne Frogatt, Lily James, Rob James-Collier, Allen Leech, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera, Matt Milne, Lesley Nicol, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton
Creator:  Julian Fellowes
Audio:  Dolby Digital HD Stereo
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Features:  See Review
Studio:  PBS
Length:  8.75 Hours
Release Date:  January 28, 2014

"But what does it matter anyway?  We should and scream and wail and cry, but in the end we all must die."

"Well, thatís cheered me up.  Iíll get on with my work."

Show ****

I have been suggesting for many years that PBS has to return to their original mission of presenting entertainment that viewers really canít get anywhere else.  They needed a show to put them on the map for original programming again.  They do not seem to realize that educational programs and arts specials are everywhere.  Today, subscription channels are must-see television.  AMC had Mad Men and then Breaking Bad and Walking Dead.    HBO had The Sopranos and Sex in the City, and now even Netflix has its own series with House of Cards.  I wonder why the Weather Channel and ESPN donít have their own dramas of struggling with death and despair.  Even Storage Wars and Duck Dynasty have some light elements of drama and comedy that make you think twice about missing them. 

PBS did not actually create a new series; but fortunately, its British counterpart has produced one of the best dramas in years, Downton Abbey, created and written by veteran Julian Fellowes.  While it is essentially a soap opera about a Lord and his family, with the upstairs-downstairs framework of other British dramas, there is something different about this show.  Part of the appeal is that the characters all have hope and pain no matter what their position and find humor and some measure of happiness beyond their trappings. 

We are also watching the slow death of a way of life, for better or worse.  The wealthiest estates were swiftly becoming impractical and began to hemorrhage money while the middle class was fast emerging, a process that picked up the pace after the First World War as the middle class emerged.   Jazz was in the air, and the stock market crash was just around the corner.  The British empire was dwindling and Ireland was burning. 

But the real fascination I believe is how different characters have such different challenges, all trying to break out of a preordained path.  The women upstairs are just waiting for husbands, the maids want something more, but donít dare give up steady employment.  The men are just trying to figure out what happened to the charmed British world they knew as boys and the servants, though they own no part of Downton, seem to guard their duties and positions in the house with a possessive quality hard to comprehend to most American workers. 

Downton is infamous for killing off its main characters, but according to a recent interview with Mr. Fellowes, this is just because the actors chose to leave the show.  I will avoid spoilers, but this season is shocking in many different ways.  Whereas in the first few seasons, someone always saw or heard something they were not supposed to, in this new season storylines do not resolve smoothly.   Mr. Bates is once again drawn into the shadow of possible murder after Annaís serenity is shattered.  Newcomer wild child Rose becomes very friendly with a band leader of a different race, and Mary is of course trying to find a man to replace her dearly departed Matthew.  She struggles just to care about anything at all, even her infant son, but eventually takes an active interest in Downton itself and grows into a different woman.  Branson spends time with a local schoolteacher, while Edithís life takes several sordid turns.  Thomas is more conniving than ever, especially with the new maid who takes OíBrienís place.  We never do learn her secret.   We are shown a brief Dickens-like view into English work conditions that leads to a revelation about Carson.   And Lord Grantham struggles more and more with control over his dominion, which is ever so slightly fading from his grasp. 

Video ****

I always thought this program looked beautiful in high definition broadcast form, but this Blu-ray is a true revelation.  The colors and images are more detailed and gorgeous than I can possibly describe.  Every detail of this rich period rings through, whether it is the beautifully cultivated grounds, the expert set decoration of the great estate, or even the grey weathered look of old London.  Absolute perfection!

Audio ****

I don't believe I've ever given a four-star rating to a stereo track before, but while I was watching, I thought I was hearing a full surround experience.  The dynamic range was strong, and this uncompressed audio actually does some replicating in the rear channels for a more enriching experience.  The musical score is also quite perfect, and the overall audio with dialogue, music and activity is terrifically balanced throughout.

Features **

The last disc contains a couple of featurettes on the season.  One is in the form of a video diary showing a day in the life of Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith Crawley.  One has more cast and crew interviews reflecting on the ongoing drama of the show.

Summary:

For once it seems that half the cast is not discarded in the end .  This is more of a transitional season, a beginning of more stories than satisfying conclusions, but of course this just makes us want another season even more desperately! 

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