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Downton Abbey Season 3: TV Review

Lady vs. Lady

The Bottom Line

The beloved British soap opera regains the strong footing it had in season one but lost in season two. 

Airdate

Sunday, Jan. 6 (PBS)

Cast

Jim Carter, Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Joanne Froggatt, Maggie Smith, Brendan Coyle

The third season finds the writing back on track in Masterpiece’s welcome return to form.

America’s love affair with Downton Abbey is quite a wonder on many levels, and maybe one of the most intriguing is that despite a steep quality drop in season two, viewers remained ironclad loyal. Anyone who -- on blind faith -- ignored the serious plotting flaws and dramatic twists will be rewarded by what is shaping up to be a fine comeback in season three.

Downton is a soap opera, and as even the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) might say, we mustn’t ignore the evidence in front of our faces. Viewers love Downton for the characters, first and foremost. That’s why season one was so great. Series creator and lone writer Julian Fellowes spent all of that season bringing these wonderful upstairs/downstairs types into our world. It was a herculean task, done well. Now, you can philosophize all you’d like on why Americans would be interested in a fussy British drama about class structure -- where upper-class etiquette and morals prevail -- when we’re bitchy about the 1 percent at home, but let’s leave that to the sociologists. What Fellowes gave Americans, who ate it up like sugar cookies, is a well-written, well-acted costume drama. Developing those characters brought out the strength in his storytelling.

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Then season two suffered. Once he’d established who they were, he had to put them into action -- create drama for them that would somehow entertain us -- and that’s where Downton lost its way. It got soapier and more implausible as it went, perhaps hitting its nadir with the faux cousin burn victim, and it certainly lost ground with Matthew’s Miracle. (And let’s not forget Robert’s willingness to seek solace in the staff. … No, on second thought, let’s not recount the frequent wrong turns of season two.)

It’s a testament to Downton that none of that really mattered: Loyalty and viewership only increased in season two, and sometimes when you create memorable and beloved characters, people will overlook your lapses. And they did. As it happens, the last episode was the strongest of the season, sending viewers away satisfied and eager for season three.

On Jan. 6, it’s upon us. The good news is that most of the crazy plot twists and soapier elements have vanished. Fellowes has a stronger hold on telling the individual tales of his well-drawn characters, and that pinpoint focus utterly redeems the series early on. That’s not to say things won’t get a little sudsy as the season unwinds, but Downton is nearly as ship-shape as it was in season one and seems as confident and as winning as it did then.

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Season three starts in the summer of 1920, and change is afoot. (No spoilers here, don’t worry.) It appears that now that the Great War is over, some minds have been changed about what’s important. Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) are planning their wedding, but Matthew is thinking that living with less might be a good thing. He’s a bit prescient in that it turns out Robert (Hugh Bonneville) has made some dubious investments during the war, and Downton is now in serious financial trouble. Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) isn’t worried about what that might mean. “I’m American,” she tells a distraught Robert. “Have gun, will travel.” But the Earl of Grantham is not American, and protecting the legacy of Downton at all costs is his obligation and burden.

That turn of events partly is an opening to introduce Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), who’s still rich enough to step in and save Downton if needed, much in the way Cora saved it earlier with her fortune. But as an American, the formidable Martha thinks the Brits cling too closely to tradition and abhor change. MacLaine is a wonderful sparring partner for Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham). “Oh dear,” Martha says, sizing up Violet. “The war has made old women of us both.” Violet replies, “Oh, no,” looking at Martha’s face, “I stay out of the sun.” Their verbal jousting alone sets season three apart.

Freed from the more silly contrivances of season two, Fellowes gets back to what really matters in this series: character development. Everybody grows in season three. The pregnant Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) comes home for Lady Mary’s wedding with rabble-rousing husband Tom Branson (Allen Leech), their return paid for by someone mysterious. If you’re wondering whether Branson has curbed his tongue, he has not.

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Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is, sadly, still Poor Edith. You’d think that with the good she did in season two, helping soldiers and such, whatever bad karma she had would be erased. It’s not -- yet.

The downstairs romance at the center of Downton, between Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt), continues apace. He’s still in jail; she’s still dutifully visiting him and trying to prove his innocence. Theirs is the truest and most noble of loves, of course.

Thomas (Rob James-Collier) still is a pill, and so is O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), and the two face off in a continuing series of spiteful encounters. But something we learned about Thomas (ever so briefly) in the first season will play a larger part in season three.

And for those who have been fond of the unspoken but clear love between Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), rest assured that it goes on (without some soapy coming-together -- at least so far).

Season three will bring some major changes, and Fellowes handles them well. Most important, Downton seems as focused as it was in season one and is tackling the issue of a changing world in, well, a less unbecoming, more Downton-esque fashion, whereas season two took them on in, strangely enough, a more broadly American soap opera way, with forced drama and silly twists.

The Abbey is on firmer ground this year and is an absolute pleasure to watch. It’s remarkable how clearly defined characters given great material can transport the viewer. And with 17 million Americans having watched season two, we know they’re ready to be swept away again. It’s a pleasure to report that Downton Abbey has regained its upper-class composure.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine