Following the surprise success of its phenomenal first season, the British period drama “Downton Abbey” is puffing out its aristocratic chest for its sophomore go-around, squaring off against some tough competition -- both old and new -- in the 2012 Emmy race.

Set during the political and social upheaval of 1910s Europe, “Downton” centers on the uppity residents of a grand English estate and the not-so-uppity people who serve their dinner and clean their sheets. Last year, the show took home an Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries, but this year, PBS decided to go for broke -- entering the show in the coveted Outstanding Drama Series category.

A win for “Downton” would be more than a feather in the cap for PBS, which is constantly under pressure to justify its existence amid frequent criticism by members of Congress who want to yank its funding. But even the show’s most rabid fans must be secretly admitting to themselves that His Lordship and the Grantham-Crawley clan have a slim chance of taking home the Emmy statuette. With the hard-hitting “Breaking Bad” and the indomitable “Mad Men” in the running -- both of which are flawlessly crafted, brilliantly written and beautifully shot -- “Downton” starts to look a little soap-operatic by comparison.   

And that’s particularly true this season. Following the characters into the muddy trenches of World War I, the season saw the titular estate turned into a makeshift infirmary for wounded British soldiers, a plot device that turned the show’s upper- and lower-class worlds upside down in equal parts. The scowling Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) found her matriarchal prowess slipping as the delirium of war pulled her family in different directions, while the season itself contained a series of bizarre plot twists. Cousin Matthew (Dan Stevens) found himself wounded and miraculously healed, the scheming footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) shot off his finger to avoid the front lines, the bafflingly selfless Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) was charged with murder, and a somewhere in the middle the mayhem, a burned-beyond-recognition stranger showed at Downton’s doorstep claming to be the estate’s rightful heir.  

While the ramped-up melodrama is admittedly a big part of “Downton Abbey’s” appeal, many of its early champions -- critics, fans and even a few cast members -- have cited the contrived storylines as evidence that the two-year-old series has already lost its way. Such negative critical buzz can kill a show’s Emmy prospects on arrival, particularly when far more serious contenders are facing off, with higher stakes. AMC’s “Mad Men” is poised to take home a historic fifth Outstanding Drama Emmy, while “Breaking Bad’s” fourth season has won widespread acclaim with virtually no dissenters.    

But some TV pundits are insisting that we can’t count “Downton Abbey” out. “The Television Academy loves a cultural lynchpin,” as the Daily Beast’s Jace Lacob wrote. Moreover, the show’s airiness this season could help distinguish it in a year of heavy-handed nominees punctuated by bootleggers (“Boardwalk Empire”), CIA agents (“Homeland”), cocky advertising execs (“Mad Men”), medieval royals (“Game of Thrones”) and a meth dealer (“Breaking Bad”). By comparison, “Downton Abbey” might be more soap opera than serious drama, but then again, a surprise Emmy win would be decidedly consistent with that theme. In the end, we’re all suckers for a twist ending.  

The 64th Primetime Emmy Awards will be broadcast live on Sunday, September 23, at 7. p.m., on ABC.