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January 5, 2012 at 9:37 AM

Welcome back, ‘Downton Abbey’

Nearly every writer on the Seattle Times arts and entertainment staff is a rabid fan of PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” the WWI-era British drama that returns for its second season on Sunday night, Jan. 8.

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You too? If so, you’ll enjoy this season preview, below, that came to us via the Scripps Howard news service yesterday. It’s written by Rob Owen, whose name you might recognize: He’s written some terrific freelance stories for the Seattle Times, including a recent piece on “Portlandia” and one on “Finding Bigfoot.”

Here’s Rob’s “Downton Abbey” story, in full:

BY ROB OWEN

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Returning to “Downton Abbey” on PBS’s “Masterpiece” Sunday night is like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket and settling in to catch up with old friends. It’s difficult to imagine a better way to pass a cold winter’s evening.

Season two of the biggest PBS hit in years–maybe decades–is larger in scope, unspooling over seven weeks beginning at 9 p.m. on PBS stations (check local listings) with a two-hour premiere. (Subsequent episodes run one-hour each, except the last two, which are also two hours, on Feb. 12 and 19.)

The story begins in 1916, two years after the events of the first season of “Downton Abbey.”World War I is fully engaged with Downton heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) on the front lines, where he’s soon joined by nasty downstairs footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier).

War has put everyone–the upstairs Grantham family and its downstairs servants–on something closer to equal footing. Stressful as the war may be, even for those relatively unscathed on the home front, it inspires more generous spirits.

Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), in particular, is much kinder and more understanding. Her cold, unpleasant streak doesn’t resurface until near the war’s end. Even granny Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), shows greater humanity, butting in and trying to spare two servants from wartime service.

This does not preclude her from spouting the funniest lines of dialogue, delivered with Smith’s pucker-faced comic timing. When it’s suggested that Downton should become a convalescent home for soldiers wounded in battle, Violet initially protests.

“What these men will need is rest and relaxation,”she begins, winding up for her classist observation. “Will that be achieved by mixing ranks and putting everyone on edge?”

Pretty much the entire first-season cast returns, save for downstairs maid Gwen (Rose Lesli), who landed work as a secretary away from Downton at the end of season one.

New faces are added to the bulging cast roster, including a maid named Ethel (Amy Nuttall) and a new love interest for Lady Mary, newspaper baron Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen). Returning viewers will be most interested in how existing relationships blossom.

Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), the valet to Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), continues his romance of longing glances and stolen moments with the maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt). Lady Mary regrets throwing over Matthew, who has a new love interest in Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle). Lavinia is wisely depicted as a lovely young woman who defies viewers’ attempts to see her as a nasty rival to Mary. She’s not.

“Downton”offers more soapy twists than ever, including potential weddings, a few deaths, a potential heir, more fallout from the first season’s sex scandal and new indiscretions. The first six programs were made available for review, and writer/series creator Julian Fellowes weaves together an engrossing tapestry of stories, although some of them stretch credulity or peter out.

It’s possible “Downton”stories might be better served in smaller doses, but it seems distasteful to be anything but grateful to spend more time with this charming, varied cast of characters.

Follow TV writer Rob Owen on Twitter or Facebook under RobOwenTV. Email him at owenr@shns.com.

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(Photos: Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery star in “Downton Abbey” on PBS, top. And Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern star in “Downton Abbey” on PBS. Both images courtesy of PBS/MCT.)

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