Downton Abbey is enjoying the kind of success very few British shows have in the United States – it’s the kind of show that Americans love: it’s entertaining, pulpy, and engrossing, but it’s all done with a British accent so it sounds classier. The period costumes, the historical details, and the upstairs/downstairs tone of the show covers up that this is essentially a nighttime soap – a toffee-nosed version of Dynasty or Dallas. In its third series, Downton Abbey shows no signs of wear and tear yet. Judging from the crowded DVD cover, the cast has grown exponentially, and the additional characters add much drama and comedy to show and each makes an importance contribution to the show’s success.
The big news of the third season is Shirley MacLaine’s appearance as Martha Levinson, the mother of Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern). MacLaine brings a lot of piquant humor to the proceedings and her sparring scenes with Maggie Smith, who stars as the Dowager Countess Grantham, are fantastic. Unfortunately, MacLaine’s appearance is far too brief, much too brief to justify the media hype surrounding her addition to the cast.
Otherwise, the drama of Downton Abbey continues. There are deaths of some beloved characters in this season – because of this, the third season comes off as a bit of a bummer. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot to love about this season – it’s no secret that Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) gets to leave prison and is reunited with his wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt), the ladies’ maid. His return causes major disruption because he unsettles Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), the closeted valet who replaced Bates during his incarceration.
The young ladies of Downton Abbey are also experience much change: Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) marries Matthew (Dan Stevens), and the two must balance getting settled into marriage while at the same time maintaining the estate; Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), is fending off the advances of older men, while forging a new career and becoming a career gal; civic-minded activist, Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her husband, former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) must handle her father’s resentment while tending to her pregnancy.
And while the daughters are growing, it appears that their dad, Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is drowning. Bad investments, resentment, and a childish petulance torpedoes any chance of Robert making a go at being a successful earl. He and Matthew must run Downton Abbey together, and Robert’s blunted insticts are starting to endanger the family’s wealth – he’s terrible at making business decisions, even suggesting that the estate invest with Charles Ponzi. Things just don’t go well for Robert – not only is he losing grip on controlling Downton Abbey, but his daughters no longer obey him, and he finds his values are becoming quickly antiquated (in one scene, he demands that his family depart a dinner when learning his host’s maid was a hooker, and is rebuked by everyone, and is left to storm out by himself).
Because the cast has been expanded, there are lots more stories to watch – and we’re getting more stories from the staff, which is great because they are some of the most interesting characters in the show. There are tales of romance, intrigue, betrayal, and blackmail in the “downstairs” side of Downton Abbey, and these plot lines provide much of the engrossing drama in the show.
What’s also great about the third season is that it shows that the writers and cast haven’t missed a beat. The show’s on par with the other two excellent seasons – the only debit being that some of the best characters are shed throughout the season, and each absent character is sorely missed. And the season ends on a rather dour note (not like the lovely ending of the second series). Still few shows can live up to the kind of attention and press like Downton Abbey, and it does easily.