Jan. 5, 2014 at 11:36 AM ET
Last season on "Downton Abbey," we tragically lost some of our favorite characters. No one can fill their brogues and T-strap pumps, but season four, which returns Sunday on PBS, accounts for the turnover by introducing a number of fresh faces — both upstairs and downstairs.
Although she didn't officially bid farewell, O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), Cora's lady's maid, is MIA in the premiere. Without notice or warning, the spiteful, scheming sourpuss absconded to India — "like a thief in the night" — with Lady Rose's mama, who so admired her hair-styling skills.
Her replacement is just one of many new friends and foes we'll meet this season.
Despite his heavily publicized casting, Paul Giamatti only appears in one episode — the season finale (aired as a Christmas special in the U.K.). Cora's ne'er-do-well American brother finds himself in a spot of bother, which requires Robert to take a trip across the pond to sort things out. What transpires there takes place off camera —pity, because the earl is accompanied overseas by Thomas, and "Thomas Lands in the Big Apple" is a show we'd pay pounds sterling to see. We finally meet Harold when he joins mama Martha (Shirley MacLaine) in London to celebrate Lady Rose's debutante ball and flirt his way through the aristocracy.
The dashing aristocrat (Tom Cullen), an old friend of the Grantham family, is the first of a trio of suitors trying to woo Mary out of her widow's weeds. Mary and "Tony" — he was Anthony Foyle before his father's death made him the new Viscount Gillingham — could be a perfect match … if only Mary had room in her grieving heart for anyone besides Matthew.
Green, Lord Gillingham's valet
When a viscount visits, he brings along his own "man." Tony isn't exactly fond of his valet, Green (Nigel Harman), but the downstairs servants — most of them, anyway — welcome the spirited joker into their midst. But Tony's instincts are correct: Green is a nasty piece of work — and destined to be reviled as one of "Downton Abbey's" most dastardly villains.
Napier (Brendan Patricks) isn't a new character, but we haven't seen him since season one. Then, he was one of the eligible bachelors courting Mary — but she rebuffed him in favor of the handsome Mr. Pamuk. (Is it too early to call Mary a black widow?) And although Mary seems to welcome Evelyn back, she's once again more intrigued by his companion, Charles Blake.
Blake (Julian Ovenden) is actually Evelyn Napier's boss, and they use Downton as their home base in a government study of estates' survival in the post-war rural economy. He is openly contemptuous of the landed gentry — and Mary feels much the same way about him. Oh, how we've missed feisty Mary! The last time we saw this much electricity between a couple at Downton, Mary was making a circuit with Matthew. Hmmm …
Has Sybil's widow finally found love again? The former chauffeur first meets schoolteacher Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis) at a political rally, so she clearly shares his dearly departed wife's independent spirit. Sarah is definitely a better choice than the lusty, ambitious maid Edna Braithwaite, who returns this season with another attempt to ensnare the uncomfortable aristocrat.
Downton's first black character, American jazz singer Jack Ross (Gary Carr, using a veddy unconvincing American accent), is based on real-life cabaret star Leslie Hutchinson. Hutch's scandalous affairs with white British socialites also form the basis for Jack's liaison with Downton's rebellious flapper Lady Rose (Lily James).
Thomas engineered the hiring of Cora's new lady's maid (Raquel Cassidy), and he expects to be repaid. Unlike O'Brien, however, Baxter isn't interested in scheming — but Thomas knows a secret that may force her to comply anyway.
The sleazy card shark (Patrick Kennedy) plays a role in Michael Gregson finally earning the approval of Edith's papa, and is the center of a blackmailing scheme in the finale.
Dame Nellie Melba
The real-life celebrity soprano is played by an equally esteemed singer, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who sang at Prince Charles and Lady Diana's wedding. Her performance at the Granthams' first party since Matthew's death brings much-needed cheer to the grieving household — but also serves as a diversion for a ghastly crime.