A British period soap opera about the masters and servants at an English country estate circa World War I: It may not sound like the buzziest, most addictive TV show to premiere since Mad Men, but that's exactly what Downton Abbey is. The drama, which PBS airs in America as part of its Masterpiece series, was watched by over 13 million people last year — a massive hit not just by public broadcasting standards, but by any network's — and took home four trophies at the 2011 Emmy Awards. "People are saying, "Oh, PBS is cool again," says network president Paula A. Kerger. After a year of building hype, Abbey returns for season two on PBS Sunday night. Is it already poised to be, as one critic predicts, the "best TV show of 2012?"

It's that good: Downton Abbey "elevates prime-time soap to a high artform worthy of viewers' time," says David Hinckley at The Daily News. If the series' first season was the "best TV show of 2011," then, notwithstanding Mad Men's imminent return, expect season two to be "the best show of 2012." Covering the years between 1916 and 1919, this installment of Abbey chronicles the "helplessness and horror" of war and its immediate aftermath — but not without peppering in the "joy, humor, and laughter" of Maggie Smith's dour punchlines as the Countess and the delicious "soap opera DNA" of the tangled romances. "Season one set the bar high. Season two clears it."
"PBS' Downton Abbey elevates prime-time soap to a high artform worthy of viewers' time"

But its popularity is a mystery: Any TV network "would kill for the kind of devotion that viewers… have for this strange and alluring soap opera," says John Doyle at The Globe and Mail. That Downton Abbey airs on PBS under the typically staid Masterpiece banner makes its popularity an amusing mystery. Sure, it echoes popular British offerings like Upstairs, Downstairs and Gosford Park, but nothing about the costume drama and romantic intrigue suggests the addictive hit the series has become. While the "craftiness of the storytelling" in season two "seems less assured," expect, bewilderingly, for it to be consumed with the same "gusto and great satisfaction."
"Downton Abbey: Bewildering Brit blockbuster is back"

Actually, it's not that great: Downton Abbey is one of those genre shows that inspire people to accost you, raving that you must watch it, despite your preconceived notions about the subject matter, says Alan Sepinwall at HitFix. After caving and viewing season one, I discovered that I "couldn't care less about most of the material." And season two is probably "weaker... overall." Both the "upstairs and downstairs storylines" are choppier this time around. The soap opera elements that were so fun and seamless last year are thrown in haphazardly. Despite what everyone says, the show really isn't for everyone.
"Downton Abbey returns to PBS for season 2"