Downton Abbey executive producer Gareth Neame says Season 4 of the hit period drama will demonstrate that the show “never sits back on its laurels. It shakes up and moves on.” Neame spoke with me ahead of a press screening today of the first episode of the new season which brings the action into the Roaring Twenties. The series picks up in 1922, six months after the death of Dan Stevens’ character Matthew Crawley, whose fatal car crash came in the last minutes of the Season 3 Christmas episode. The “spine” of next season will be the fate of his widow, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), as she heads to the next stage of her life, Neame tells me. It’s a “heavy situation to kick off with,” but it won’t be all brooding at the Grantham estate. The majority of the goings-on throughout the season will variously be “dramatic, comedic and romantic.” The audience is “still left reeling with the death of Matthew” as it comes to the new season, but Neame says he and Downton creator Julian Fellowes, “have always said that while it was clear we didn’t want to lose Dan, we weren’t able to persuade him (to stay) and so we rethought the whole thing. It was positive for the story.”
One plus was avoiding a potential Moonlighting curse. Neame says a big part of Downton is “the romantic love story.” The moment Mary and Matthew are married, the “will they or won’t they?” and the “look in the eye” are “off the menu.” And yet, he allows, “The heart of the drama has not changed.” (The episode shown today has been well-received in early, spoiler-free reviews). There are several new actors joining the show this season with potential suitors for Mary’s attentions among them. They include Gary Carr, as Jack Ross, a jazz singer and the show’s first black character; Tom Cullen as old family friend Lord Gillingham; and Julian Ovenden as aristocrat Charles Blake. Also joining the cast are Nigel Harman, Harriet Walter, Joanna David, Kiri Te Kanawa and Paul Giamatti. Downton Abbey Season 4 starts airing on the UK’s ITV in September and in the U.S. on PBS on January 5, 2014.