Ghosts haunt the halls of “Downton Abbey” at the start of the fourth season of the “Masterpiece” period drama, which premieres Sunday night at 9 on Channel 2.
The engrossing two-hour premiere reminds us of where we left off with the aristocratic Crawley family upstairs and their (mostly) loyal servants downstairs, says farewell to at least one longtime presence, and sets the table for where the season is going as modern times continue to encroach on old traditions.
With the season 3 finale death of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) just as he and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) were celebrating the birth of their son George, and the passing of Mary’s sister Lady Sybil Branson (Jessica Brown Findlay) shortly before, it’s no surprise that the old place has had a pall cast over it.
Several months later, Mary is barely functioning in her grief and everyone has different ideas about what to do. One faction — including her grandmother Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), and her brother-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech), Sybil’s likewise grief-stricken widower — thinks it would be healthier to prod Mary back into the land of the living by getting her interested in the estate to which her son is now partial heir. Another — including her protective father, Robert, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) — thinks it is best to indulge her wallowing. Whether that is strictly out of sympathy or to also keep Mary out of the way when it comes to managing Downton’s affairs probably isn’t even completely clear to Robert himself.
Isobel Crawley (the great Penelope Wilton) is also suffering the most brutal of losses, that of her child, in her quietly dignified way. And Matthew’s poor, sad sack valet Molesley (Kevin Doyle) is out of a job and in dire straits. Meanwhile, O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), scheming lady’s maid to Cora, the Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), has stolen away like a thief in the night, leaving the staff in the lurch.
Yet, thanks to creator Sir Julian Fellowes’s deft juggling of darkness and light, the arrival of some new and familiar faces, and Smith’s continuing genius at delivering withering asides and retorts, the mourning period doesn’t overwhelm the mood.
Indeed, there is humor to be had as the angst-ridden romantic drama continues apace downstairs as Daisy (Sophie McShera) pines for Alfred (Matt Milne), who is interested in Ivy (Cara Theobold), who lusts after Jimmy (Ed Speleers), all to the consternation of Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), who is busy worrying that the newfangled electric mixer is going to spell her doom. Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) is trying to confront challenges in staffing while being haunted by a ghost from his own past in the form of his long-ago theatrical partner Charlie Grigg (Nicky Henson), now down on his luck.
For a change, beleaguered middle sister Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is making some progress with her editor Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), who is working tirelessly to win both the divorce that would free him to marry Edith and the approval of her father.
And if fans thought that Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) were living happily ever after in the wake of his false imprisonment nightmare last season, you don’t know Fellowes, who throws a damnable new conflict into the couple’s path.
It continues to be to Fellowes’s credit that he manages to write for such a large number and wide array of characters and yet makes viewers know and care about each one. None is purely hissable nor heroic, intentions are murky, and impulsive choices have major consequences, keeping the enjoyable soap at full lather.Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.