Dame Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery star as the Dowager Countess Lady Violet and Lady Mary in "Downton Abbey." Photographer: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece via Bloomberg
Dame Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery star as the Dowager Countess Lady Violet and Lady Mary in "Downton Abbey." Photographer: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece via Bloomberg

The reviews are in for last night’s U.S. premiere of the fourth season of "Downton Abbey," and they are, to say the least, unkind.

The Daily Beast: “Rest assured, in the two-hour premiere, about the only enraging thing to happen is how unexciting and predictable 'Downton' has become.”

Vanity Fair: “Lady Mary is in the throes of a pity party so magnificently unsympathetic that even Anna, Mary’s sister from a downstairs mister, looks like she is this close to slapping the grief right out of her.”

TV.com: “As 'Downton Abbey' roared into the 1920s, the undeniable newness looming on the horizon was a tantalizing promise... making our return to a decidedly regressed 'Downton' all the more disappointing.”

Even the New York Times -- which, let’s face it, absolutely loves the show -- was troubled (in that restrained Edwardian-Timesian way) about the script from series creator Julian Fellowes: “But try though he may to embrace life, Mr. Fellowes could not prevent a certain persistent morbidity from creeping into his writing.”

And the U.K. ratings for the current season, while solid, are down a bit. (Fair warning: This link includes ample spoilers.)

What’s going on here? I can’t speak for the U.K. viewers, but I think the premiere skidded (briefly, one hopes) into a problem that has beset all the Sunday night soaps disguised as serious drama. “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and even “The Sopranos” used the tension of ordinary life to offset the tension of the other worlds in which the characters were enmeshed. If Walter White isn’t cooking crystal meth and running for his life, his marital problems are a bore. If Tony Soprano isn’t in a shooting war with his rivals, we don’t care enough about his family to watch.

The least engaging episodes of “Downton Abbey” have been those in which the soap opera entirely swallows the fascinating period details and the stress generated by a rapidly changing world. What I suspect the critics are responding to is the pervasive sense in the premiere that the swallowing is afoot.

As the Dowager Countess herself pointed out, the problem with Greek drama is that everything happens off stage. "Downton Abbey" is at its best when the stage gets a little larger. But surely it’s too early to worry. Something in the story arc led to the remarkable 40 percent ratings share for the U.K. season finale two months ago. One suspects that the proper balance between soap and society will once more soon be struck.