Downton Abbey - Season 3
Break out the good china and throw on your "Free Bates" T-shirt. "Downton Abbey" is back. The third season of the BBC series, airing in the States on PBS's "Masterpiece," has all the glamour, gossip and gowns that made the first two seasons smash, Emmy-nominated hits. But now that the Crowley clan, their servants and their fabulous house are between the wars, their lifestyles are threatened more than ever.
With World War I and the Spanish influenza epidemic (which conveniently killed off Downton heir Matthew's fiancee) firmly in the rear view, the house is preparing for Matthew and Mary's long-awaited wedding. The house looks gorgeous and Mary's 1920's dresses are stunning, but of course it wouldn't be "Downton Abbey" without some tragedy.
No, not former Crowley valet Bates's imprisonment for the murder of his wife. That storyline and, sadly, the fine Brendan Coyle as Bates and Joanna Froggart as house maid and Bates' current wife Anna get short shrift in the first episode. Their saga is clearly meant to play out over several episodes if not the entire season.
Instead it's Lord Crowley (the delightful Hugh Bonneville) turning out to have nearly bankrupted the estate through some very questionable investments (about which wife Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern, seems unbelievably sanguine). Rich with dramatic possibilities and historically apt, since many of the grand English families and their manors were in financial trouble after World War I, the plotline seems to be threatened by a deus ex machina that writer Julian Fellowes is setting up with a possible stunning bit of luck for Matthew.
Frustratingly, "Downton Abbey" appears to be already retracing its tracks, with Matthew refusing to do the very thing that would be sensible and that viewers would most want him to do (as he did when refusing to marry Mary for a good part of Season Two), not for any cogent reason but for some inexplicable and vague moral somethingness.
Luckily, below stairs lady's maid O'Brien (the delightfully sour-pussed Siobhan Finneran) is stirring up new mischief. Ever since causing Cora's miscarriage, O'Brien has been softening, so it's fun to see her back to her old schemes but this time with a twist. She and former conspirator Thomas (the increasingly dour Rob James-Collier) are now sniping at each other over O'Brien pushing her nephew as a new footman. If O'Brien and Thomas caused trouble when they were allied, the possibilities for fireworks heighten if they're at odds.
Another warring pair that shows some promise are the always reliable, always hysterical Dame Maggie Smith as Crowley grand dame Dowager Countess Violet and Shirley MacLaine as Cora's American mother Martha Levinson. In the premiere episode, MacLaine is stuck almost entirely with lines about how change is inevitable, but the looks the duo exchange, all pursed lips and disdainful Britishness coming up against who-gives-a-hell Yankee verve, are priceless.
Less entertaining are the other wedding houseguests, younger sister Sybil who married the help. She's got her unborn child and former chauffeur, current Irish revolutionary Branson with her. The sniping of the aristocrats and Branson gets tiresome, but it does give the sweetly starchy Sir Anthony a chance to shine. Now that Mary and Sybil have been paired off with their true loves, it's easy to root for Lady Edith to get her man and actor Robert Bathurst's charming performance is reason for Sir Anthony to stick around.
It will be interesting to see if the third season of "Downton Abbey" can sustain itself through seven episodes. The premiere wraps up so many plot points that it feels more like a season finale.
"Masterpiece: Downton Abbey Season 3"
Premieres Jan. 6, 2013