As sweet as treacle tart, the third season of Downton Abbey arrives reasonably fresh and warm. The Downton property — that gigantic pile of stones — may be chilly, but the upper-floor twits and the lower-floor underclass can still be counted on to provide a lot of good fun. For his drama, creator Julian Fellowes is relying more than ever on comic and poignant misunderstandings, extreme British reticence, and class warfare. There’s no accusing Fellowes of pandering to American audiences by adding Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine as a guest star. Her appearance on the series is handled with the same brisk expediency MacLaine herself brings to her crisp line readings.
The series immediately picks up the most pressing plotline from last season — the marriage of Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Stevens) — with the arrival of MacLaine’s Martha Levinson, the American mother of Elizabeth McGovern’s Cora, Countess of Grantham. This new character, along with almost all the others added this season, is faintly sketched, suggesting that Fellowes’ powers of invention are flagging a bit. We all want to see MacLaine go toe-to-silk-toe with Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, but — well, I’ll leave it to you to see if you think they prove worthy adversaries.
If you’ll permit me to offer a few viewing guidelines that do not spill over into the swamp of Spoilerville, I would suggest you pay close attention to the reliably devious valet Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and to the reliably ripe Grantham sister Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). Also of interest is the series’ attempt to portray this era’s attitude toward homosexuality — some will find the manner frustrating, to say the least.
More successful is the increased use of Hugh Bonneville’s Robert, Earl of Grantham, as a figure of stolid conservative values tested by the new challenges of the 1920s European economy. Downstairs, the servant class is atwitter over the new footman candidates, particularly Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers), who could pass for the younger, sloe-eyed brother of The Mentalist’s Simon Baker. And while I thought the subplot of convicted valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) languishing in jail would seem like an extraneous distraction, it actually proves one of the more exciting developments.
The Downton phenomenon here and abroad is rooted in a longing for a sense of order and decorum that doesn’t exist anymore. It may be that the series’ greatest contribution to pop culture is the idea that millions of people yearn for civility — even a superficial but proper show of manners and respect — to a degree we rarely admit. B+