Downton Abbey

Was it really so hard finding good help in those days? When Robert, aka Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), is informed that his wife is once again bereft of a lady's maid, he overdramatically moans, "Are we living under a curse?"

There's no question a pall thicker than London fog hangs heavy over Downton Abbey in its fourth year as Masterpiece Classic's signature series (Sunday, 9/8c, on PBS; check tvguide.com listings). Not only has Lady Cora's bedchamber not been the same since her scheming servant O'Brien left — she slinks away in the opening scene, and boy, is she missed — but the family and staff are in sustained mourning over the untimely (and contrived) death, six months earlier, of heir Matthew Crawley, Lady Mary's husband, in last year's unhappy finale.

"It's such eons since we've had any fun," pouts interloping cousin Lady Rose (Lily James) several hours into this bumpy transitional season. She has a point, but her impulsive — and for the mid-1920s, shocking — dalliance with a black jazz singer (Gary Carr) is one of the clumsiest and least convincing of creator/writer Julian Fellowes' many melodramatic subplots. Worse yet is a personal trauma visited upon Mary's lady's maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) that turns her into a tiresomely blubbering albatross fearful of consequences that could return her beloved Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) to prison.

Downton is on much firmer and more satisfying ground when charting the new romantic possibilities for Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) or spinning sentimental morality tales among the colorful servants below stairs. And it's impossible to resist the plentiful scenes humorously pitting Maggie Smith's imperious Dowager Countess Violet against Penelope Wilton as Isobel, the self-righteous outsider struggling to get over son Matthew's passing. "I wonder your halo doesn't grow heavy. It must be like wearing a tiara around the clock," sniffs Violet. But when she falls ill, who's there to tend her? Trusty old Isobel.

Good thing, too, because if Violet ever joins Matthew in the great beyond, I'm not sure Downton will ever be as pleasurable a place to visit.

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URBAN NIGHTMARE: "It's all about where you live," warns Lester Holt, humanizing the "tale of two cities" mandate of newly installed New York City mayor Bill de Blasio as he reports a strong, timely Dateline investigation (Sunday, 7/6c, NBC) into the environmental triggers of deadly childhood asthma in inner-city housing. Alarmed parents from housing projects in Brooklyn and East Harlem combat an intransigent and unresponsive NYC Housing Authority, using the courts and the media in efforts to force or possibly shame them to repair leaking pipes, mold-infested bathrooms and eradicate swarms of roaches — all of which are contributing factors of the disease. Holt and his cameras (sometimes hidden when work crews finally arrive) spent more than a year tracking this story, with de Blasio — then the city's Public Advocate — among those interviewed, calling the Housing Authority "the No. 1 worst landlord" in all the boroughs.

GREATEST HITS: NBC is in a reflective mood this weekend with its late-night franchises, as Saturday Night Live offers a "Best of This Season" retrospective (Saturday, 11:30/10:30c) — odds are you'll see highlights from the Tina Fey, Lady Gaga, Kerry Washington, Paul Rudd and Jimmy Fallon/Justin Timberlake installments. ... Jimmy Fallon takes center stage Sunday in The Best of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon Primetime Special (9/8c), compiling musical and comedy highlights from his five-year warm-up gig for the Tonight Show throne. His tuneful rapport with icons including Timberlake, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney is a marvel, and you're in for a treat if you've never sampled (in real time or on YouTube) his pop-culture parodies of such watercooler faves as Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Real Housewives.

SEEING STARS IN SPRINGFIELD: Fox's The Simpsons (Sunday, 8/7c) goes Hollywood when Bart shows Homer the ropes of movie piracy and illegal downloads — an activity that puts the family in the cross-hairs of the FBI. Among the guest voices: Judd Apatow and members of his movie repertory ensemble (Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann), plus Channing Tatum, Judas Priest's Rob Halford and, as the FBI agent on Homer's tail, The Millers/Arrested Development's Will Arnett.

THE WEEKEND GUIDE: The orgy of college bowl games mostly gives way to NFL Wild Card match-ups, two on NBC Saturday (AFC: Kansas City at Indianapolis at 4:35/3:35c; NFC: New Orleans at Philadelphia at 8:10/7:10c), and on Sunday, CBS will carry the AFC's San Diego vs. Cincinnati game (1:05/12:05c) while Fox broadcasts San Francisco taking on Green Bay for the NFC (4:40/3:40c). ... Nerd alert: Discovery's Mythbusters marks its 11th anniversary Saturday (8/7c) with an episode seeking to test the physics of Star Wars stunts like Luke swinging on a rope with Princess Leia. Sophia Bush comes along for the ride. ... The gloves come off on CBS's The Good Wife (Sunday, 9/8c) when Will uses mind games against Alicia in a copyright case. Who knows her methods, her strengths and weaknesses, better than her former mentor/lover? ... Did you ever want to go behind the scenes of the casting process of The Bachelor? Yeah, me neither. But that isn't stopping ABC from hyping its new season (starting Monday) with The Bachelor: Countdown to Juan Pablo (Sunday, 8/7c), which includes a tribute to former contestant Gia Allemand. ... More promising is an episode of ABC's Revenge (Sunday, 9/8c), still reeling from the fallout over Emily's shooting in last month's cliffhanger.

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