NEW YORK - As it returns for its much-awaited fourth season, "Downton Abbey" remains a saga about elegance, tradition and gentility - and the pressures of preserving them.
On the premiere, airing at 8 p.m. Sunday on PBS, Lady Mary Crawley has buckled under the weight of widowhood six months after her husband, Matthew, perished in a car crash. Inconsolable at the start of the episode, Mary (played by Michelle Dockery) dismisses their infant son as "a poor little orphan."
Her father, Lord Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), wrestles with business pressures: the death of Matthew and the absence of a will have thrown the Downton manor, already financially fragile, into further crisis.
Meanwhile, the modern world of 1922 bears down on the Downton hidebound. Just consider the encroachment of an electric mixer, the newest threat to the culinary status quo over which Mrs. Patmore reigns in the kitchen.
Even so, Mrs. Patmore remains squat, high-strung yet unbending under the pressures of keeping the Downton nobility well-fed.
In a recent interview, Lesley Nicol, who plays her, recalls filming the series' original episode with Mrs. Patmore "shouting at everybody and being horrible. As an actor you go, 'Is she just a plain, nasty piece of work?'"
But Nicol says she was set straight by the series' historical adviser, who reminded her that the character is "solely responsible for the food in that house. If you go to dinner at Downton, it's got to be the best you've ever had. Sometimes people are harsh because they need things to be right."
That was a key ingredient for playing Mrs. Patmore, but the recipe keeps the pressure on Nicol to look authentic doing it, because "viewers are looking for mistakes - they are!"
With a lifetime of credits that include the musical "Mamma Mia!" and the films "East Is East" and its sequel, "West Is West," Nicol must rely on her acting chops to be convincing as a cook, because (she readily confesses) she isn't one in real life: While her husband likes to throw dinner parties, "I'm front-of-the-house," she explains with a laugh. "I do the talking and the pouring of the drinks."
In November there was a bit of good news for rabid fans with the announcement that, yes, next year there will be a fifth season. That news freed viewers to fret about their favorite show's fate beyond 2015: How many years will "Downton" carry on?