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‘Downton Abbey’ prepares for a brave new world with tonight’s season premiere

When audiences last left the world of “Downton Abbey,” they were reeling from the death of a main character. Truthfully though most fans probably were not as shocked in the moment given the outcry from when the episode aired in the UK quickly made its way stateside. However tonight those feelings will probably come bubbling back to the surface as viewers in the USA will finally get their chance to embark on the show’s newest season and all the changes that come with it.

"Downton Abbey" returns tonight on PBS

The decision to axe a major character from a successful show usually comes from one of two reasons. The storyline dictates the exit or the actor playing the role wants to pursue other options. In “Downton’s” case, it was the latter, which drew ire towards Dan Stevens who played the popular Matthew Crawley. Stevens’ departure led to the equivalent of an emotional gut punch to viewers who were thrilled it looked like Matthew and Lady Mary would get their happy ending. Alas it was not to be.

In the UK, TV series work differently than here in the States. Often times new shows don’t go past one season and those that do only have a small number of episodes per run. “Luther” and “Sherlock” are prime examples.

In “Downton’s” case though, the show’s standard format is 8 regular episodes and an extended finale episode on Christmas. It also has won over American audiences and Emmy voters, so all involved has reason to keep the show going. Although the question soon becomes for how much longer can it continue? In an interview Friday with the AP’s Frazier Moore, executive producer Gareth Neame confirmed he had a timetable in mind…sort of.

"We know there's going to be more than five…and I know there's going to be less than 10. I don't know what happens between now and then."

Stevens exit was one of those uncertainties as Neame and creator Julian Fellows hadn’t planned on killing off Matthew Crawley or Mary’s sister Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) last year. However when both actors decided the time was right to leave it presented the pair with a brave new world for their show.

As season 4 opens months later the Crawley family is not only coming to grips with Matthew’s death but their own future as Mary’s husband was the legal heir to the family’s home and fortune.

The series will also welcome a number of new faces as its timetable roars into the 1920’s including the eventual introduction of Mary’s uncle Harold (the always enjoyable Paul Giamatti), wild child cousin Rose (Lily James, who was introduced in the season 3 finale) and a new bevy of suitors for Mary, who in the time between episodes has reverted back to “the ice queen” she was for most of the show’s early run.

Yet some of the new changes aren’t entirely being welcomed by critics including USA Today’s Robert Bianco who touched on his concerns the other day.

“The problem this season is that too many of the plots are uninvolving at best, and irritating at worst.”

However, to be fair he also acknowledges what is probably a universal truth for any show entering its fourth year.

“Your eyes may roll at times, but if you've put up with the string of coincidences before, you won't stop watching now.”

Bianco is dead on and no matter what “Downton” isn’t that big of a time commitment and the payoff is usually always worth it, so audiences have no reason to turn away. After all, any time Dame Maggie Smith appears as Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, viewers are reminded exactly why they love this show.

Its mix of smart acting and emotional storylines have helped make it an international smash and one that promises to continue winning over fans on both sides of the pond.

Downton Abbey” returns tonight on PBS.

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