Tuned In: Dull-edged sword hangs over PBS series after gloomy 'Downton' premiere


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PBS does its hit series "Downton Abbey" no favors by airing its first episode as a two-hour premiere. The show is always better at holding viewer attention in more manageable one-hour chunks.

Sunday's two-hour premiere (9 p.m., WQED-TV) is set six months after the death of Matthew Crawley in a car accident at the end of season three. His widow, Mary (Michelle Dockery), remains in deep mourning, dressed in black and unwilling to leave her room.

"The price of great love is great misery when one of you dies," says Mary's father, Robert (Hugh Bonneville). He's intent on allowing her to wallow while her grandmother, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), and faithful servant Carson (Jim Carter) seek to bring Mary back to the land of the living.

"You're letting yourself be defeated, my lady," Carson says. "I'm sorry if it's a lapse to say so, but someone has to."

Widower Tom Branson (Allen Leech), who lost his wife, Sybil, last season, also works to persuade Mary to get on with living by taking an interest in running Downton. The pair bond in a way that may suggest to some viewers the possibility of a romance down the road, but it doesn't appear such a development will take place.

While the "Downton" premiere is focused on Mary, there are other stories at play. Scheming servant O'Brien disappears like a thief in the night, leaving goodbye notes behind, much to the consternation of the other servants and the Crawleys. (Actress Siobhan Finneran opted to leave the series.)

And Molesley (Kevin Doyle), valet to Matthew, finds himself without a position now that his employer is dead, leading the Dowager Countess to attempt to find him work with one of her friends.

A new nanny gets on the wrong side of vindictive Thomas (Rob James-Collier), and Edith (Laura Carmichael) continues her courtship of the Londoner whose wife is in a vegetative state.

Kudos to "Downton" for its memory of characters from the past: Gwen (Rose Leslie, now on "Game of Thrones"), who hid a typewriter and left Downton to become a secretary at the end of season one, sends word of her marriage by letter. Gwen doesn't appear, but it's a nice, realistic callback.

Thomas may no longer have O'Brien, but he attempts to enlist a newcomer as a spy. And the role of African-Americans in British society comes to the fore, one of the season's few previously unexplored plots.

These are the bright spots in a season -- PBS made all but the finale, featuring the return of Shirley MacLaine, available for review -- that feels like it retreads old ground. Illness returns as a plot point, and suspicions about a potential murderer are once again stories. And Mary again finds herself courted by multiple suitors once she emerges from mourning.

The show is becoming somewhat repetitive and a bit dull to the point that it feels like "Downton," already renewed for a fifth season, needs to wrap it up sooner rather than later lest it overstay its welcome.

The show's eight-episode air pattern will be two hours for Sunday's season premiere and the season finale, one hour for episodes two through six and 90 minutes for episode seven.

'Chicago P.D.'

NBC's "Chicago Fire" didn't generate much buzz or many positive reviews when it premiered in fall 2012, but the series has steadily grown into a reliable, decently rated drama for the peacock network.

So it's perhaps no surprise that there's now a spinoff series, "Chicago P.D." (10 p.m. Wednesday, WPXI), from the same production team. Actor David Eigenberg ("Sex and the City"), a series regular on "Chicago Fire," appears in the "Chicago P.D." premiere episode, and several of the "Chicago P.D." regulars have already appeared on "Chicago Fire."

The "Chicago P.D." pilot isn't the best Chicago cop show in recent memory -- that would be Fox's short-lived "The Chicago Code" -- but it's a decent if somewhat predictable procedural/serial hybrid. Like "Chicago Fire," "Chicago P.D." won't win any awards, but it's OK as cop shows go for viewers comfortable with violence (multiple severed heads can be glimpsed in the debut episode).

Wednesday's premiere reintroduces the characters for the benefit of viewers who don't watch "Chicago Fire." Intelligence Unit leader Sgt. Hank Voight (gravel-voiced Jason Beghe) has a shady past and seems to traffic in unethical dealings in the present, too. In the premiere, Voight and his team, which includes Det. Antonio Dawson (Jon Seda, "Homicide: Life on the Street"), seek to stop a serial killer who beheads his/her victims.

"Chicago P.D." is the kind of show where when a lead character's family gets introduced, it's obvious something horrible will happen to one of the family members before the end of the episode. It's not cutting-edge storytelling, but there are some decent plot threads as the show introduces its characters, including a brash desk sergeant who is either testing a rookie or simply ordering her to do her dirty work.

'Blood Brother' on PBS

The acclaimed documentary film "Blood Brother," about a former Pittsburgher who works in an orphanage in India with children with HIV and AIDS, will air on PBS's "Independent Lens" on WQED-TV at 10 p.m. Jan. 20.

WQED on nuns

WQED-TV's Michael Bartley and photographer/editor Paul Ruggieri explore a decline in nuns in the Catholic church in "Change of Habit" (8 p.m. Thursday). Local religious orders featured in the half-hour program include The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill; The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Baden; and the Franciscan Sisters T.O.R. of Steubenville, Ohio.

Channel surfing

Fox renewed "Masterchef Junior" for a second season over the holidays. ... Steeltown Entertainment's "A Shot to Save the World," about Jonas Salk and his team that developed the first polio vaccine, received a Fall 2013 Golden Eagle Award from the Council on International Nontheatrical Events.

Tuned In online

Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "The Following," "Hollywood Game Night" and "Homeland." This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on "Community," "The Assets" and 2013 ratings data. Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.

Tuned In Podcast has the holiday week off.

 


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