Downton Abbey

Who says you can't go home again? Not that any of us ever lived in a place as grand and as teeming with character — highborn and low, selfless and treacherous — as Downton Abbey. What a pleasure to return to the world of the Emmy-winning Masterpiece Classic for several months worth of star-crossed romance, heartbreaking pathos, shameless melodrama and unabashed sentiment. (The series begins Sunday on PBS; check local listings.)

"You'll find there's never a dull moment in this house," clucks Violet, the riotously outspoken Dowager Countess (a priceless Maggie Smith), and she certainly has a point, as the turbulent events of World War I break down social barriers and conventions, changing the very nature of this once-private estate and upending its inhabitants' cloistered routines forever as they seek purpose. When one of the servants remarks, "The world does not turn on the style of a dinner," the very proper butler Carson (Jim Carter) retorts, "Mine does." But overwhelmed by a shrinking staff and a house overrun by convalescing veterans, even he must relent and allow a maid to serve His Lordship luncheon. Shocking, I know.

There are juicy new villains, including The Tudors' Maria Doyle Kennedy as the vindictive wife of the loyal valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), and Game of Thrones' Iain Glen as a newspaper baron who covets eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery). She still carries an impossible torch for Downton heir Matthew (matinee idol Dan Stevens), whose fate during wartime looms large throughout the second season.

The sprawling narrative reveals people at their best and worst, but it's the moments of grace that stand out and move us deeply — including a poignant wedding likely to make any Downton devotee weep. "All this unbridled joy has given me quite an appetite," says Violet following an especially miraculous reversal of fortune. For those of us who hungered for a year to witness these new chapters, the appetite is insatiable. (And as if there were any doubt, PBS confirmed a season 3 during the TCA press tour this week. Bravo!)

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SINFULLY FUNNY:
Has Showtime no shame? Thankfully, no. House of Lies, the latest outrageous addition to a bawdy Sunday lineup, sandwiched at 10/9c between the chaotic family dramedy Shameless and the long-in-the-tooth Californication, makes the others look like toothless amateurs. Deeply cynical, garish in its raunchiness and always rudely, lewdly hilarious, Lies swims in a shark tank of such appalling survival-of-the-nastiest bad behavior it could launch its own channel: Human Animal Planet.

The native habitat of these sleek creatures — a team of cocky management consultants led by the recklessly venal Marty Kaan (an electrifying Don Cheadle) — is an endless parade of airports and hotels and corporate suites, from the big cities to the hollow heartlands of Indiana and Utah. "Consulting is like dissing a really pretty girl so that she'll want you more," says Marty, who often steps out of a freeze-frame to deliver scathing stylized asides to the audience, talking straight to the camera to teach us his lingo and soulless trade secrets.

For Marty and his crew, which includes the tart Kristen Bell (a world away from Veronica Mars) and the smarmy Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation), the pitch to clients, who most likely don't even need their services, is like a seduction. Or is it closer to rape? "You have to be willing to violate," Marty says in voice-over. Violating personal space, good manners, the truth, maybe even the law — "so all that is left is the yes." Saying yes to House of Lies doesn't mean we approve of their tactics, whether in the boardroom or in their kinky off-time. But as a pitiless, biting satire of the debauched state of American big business, it's no lie to call this one of the smartest, funniest shows of the new year.

THEY'RE TIMELESS, DARLING: They may lie shamelessly about their age, holding at 39 like depraved versions of Jack Benny, but Edina and Patsy are still Absolutely Fabulous 20 years after exploding on the scene, Britain's most enduringly hilarious exports since Monty Python. In the first of three 20th anniversary specials (Sunday, 10/9c, BBC America, also on Logo), auteur Jennifer Saunders and her statuesque co-star Joanna Lumley are as dazed and delirious as ever — "I'm just held together with gels, pills and suppositories," whines Eddy to her long-suffering now ex-con daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha) — yet they're astute enough to deplore the Kardashian phenom of undeserved celebrity ("They're multiplying like head lice") and adept enough to somehow escape the murderous threats of Saffy's cellmate, which constitutes the sketchy plot of this frantically side-splitting return to form.

Packing in more clownish insanity in one half-hour than should be humanly possible, AbFab spreads the wealth to wacky sidekicks like Eddy's irrepressibly inane assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks), whose one-woman re-enactment of last year's royal wedding is a literal scream. There's also a nod to the original Danish version of The Killing, during which we're treated to Eddy babbling in faux Danish. No matter the language, or the decade, AbFab lives up to its title, and its reputation.

NEW BUT NOT IMPROVED: And then there are those concepts that don't stand the test of time. Which leads me to this piece of friendly advice for NBC: Go original. Stay away from brand names. Prime Suspect didn't work out, because even when it improved, it couldn't live up to the British version and ultimately wasn't distinctive enough to stand out. NBC's new series adaptation of The Firm is even more misguided. (The two-hour premiere airs Sunday at 9/8c, then moves to Prime Suspect's Thursday time period, 10/9c.) Updating John Grisham's breakthrough legal thriller of 20 years ago, it feels the opposite of relevant and fresh, and casting the blandly handsome but strangely prim Josh Lucas in the Tom Cruise role is no help. He steps into the wingtips of Mitch McDeere, a painfully earnest lawyer who (as the show picks up) has spent the last decade in witness protection with his wife and daughter and is now trying to start a storefront practice of his own, but soon gets embroiled in a new conspiracy involving another sinister high-end firm. When a brand-new show already feels like a repeat, you know something's wrong. And The Firm fizzles so limply it makes the premature loss of Prime Suspect hurt that much more.

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