New season of ‘Downton Abbey’ packed with tragedy and scandal

With the Great War over and a marriage in the works to seal its future, Downton Abbey is overdue for a party.

The Edwardian country house at the center of PBS’ “Masterpiece” phenomenon still shelters the Crawley family and its full complement of servants jockeying for position, money and class. The castle, if not everyone in it, never fails to impress.

“Downton Abbey” has delighted critics while doubling the average PBS viewership. A slew of new viewers, mostly young women, has discovered the appeal of rooting against Austenesque predicaments of the early 20th century while basking in gorgeous cinematography and period fashion. Around 12 million Brits a week tuned in for the third season, which makes its American debut Sunday night.

Gazing approvingly over a particularly ostentatious dining-room spread, lovable battle-ax Lady Violet observes, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

The second season of “Downton Abbey” had its share of excess, but not all of it was successful. A magical case of disappearing paralysis, a Ouija board and that burn-scarred grifter — come on now. Using the Spanish flu outbreak to fracture a love triangle was bad enough, but the writers have not finished piling up outrageous circumstances tied to the death of poor, spurned Lavinia Swire.

Luckily the Christmas episode, in which the embattled cousin couple Matthew and Mary finally completed their social obstacle course to engagement, made up for the rest of an uneven season heavy on melodrama.

The third season’s extended opener dumps a lot on everyone’s plate from the get-go, establishing conflict tied to the shifting post-war tides. The uptick in action makes it easier to continue to defend the show’s appeal as more than “an assumption that everything British people did 100 years ago is automatically interesting,” as the skeptical male sharing my living room charges.

The excellent cast and stunning production values, not to mention the accent factor, make it easy to extend credit to “Downton Abbey” that it can’t repay. Those who accept it for what it is — a funny, manipulative soap that relies on historical upheaval to frame its scarce plots — should be happy to hear that “Downton’s” new season is better than its last. It always helps when an American shows up.

As Lady Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson, Shirley MacLaine arrives from across the pond to attend her granddaughter’s wedding and knocks the cobwebs off the Crawleys. Fans of Maggie Smith as Violet (approximately 99.9 percent of “Downton” fans, that is) will be happy to see her face a worthy adversary.

Martha and Violet waste no time, sniping in a raised-eyebrow battle royale before they even sit down to dinner. Their repartee is as juicy as you’d expect from competitive matriarchs of a certain age with more money than restraint.

Someone has had terrific fun picking out fabulous feathered headpieces for MacLaine to wave about as she inhales her food, jokes about prostitutes, clinks highball glasses and serenades Violet with “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”

But Martha isn’t moving to Yorkshire anytime soon, and as the third season moves along, the landed gentry revert to their frustratingly static ways.

Alpha sister Mary is still looking for a useful venture for her natural bossiness. (Just let her run the place already.) Matthew is more unbearably self-righteous than ever as he sacrifices those around him for the sake of self-flagellating principle. (Bates would be proud.)

Robert, the Earl of Grantham, is still clinging to traditions that no longer make sense. Cora is still a puppet to her lady’s maid. Horsefaced spinster Edith is as unlikely to find an available man as she is to win her father’s approval — no coincidence there, and here’s hoping she stops caring about both.

When it’s soap opera wedding day, shallow American audiences expect last-minute cold feet, a dramatic white dress and some evidence of physical passion. “Downton Abbey” delivers only one of these, while an odd exchange between Lord Grantham and Matthew about the virtues of post-marital sex makes them both creepy Crawleys for a moment. But a wedding at least brings the black sheep back to the fold.

Tom Branson, the hotheaded chauffer who married sweet daughter Sybil, can’t resist upping the ante on his socialist rhetoric, and living in Ireland has placed him atop a political powder keg with a pregnant wife.

Yet Tom (Allen Leech in an expanded role) comes in handy when financial ruin threatens the estate. He can sneer on our behalf at the Crawley family’s one-percenter notion of poverty: only eight servants! He’s probably wearing an “Occupy Downton” T-shirt beneath his grubby brown suit.

Unfortunately, the servants are also left to repeat their old mistakes, though allegiances shift. So even as the new footmen compete to attract the attentions of the new kitchen maid, the below-stairs shenanigans don’t pay off for a while. Happily for us, a midnight tiptoe across the hall of the sleeping quarters eventually creates chaos.

Instead of the 14th conversation establishing that Daisy is an easily swayed ninny, we could have spent more time playing detective with Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt) or sharpening shivs with her husband. It’s all very “Shawshank Redemption” meets “Veronica Mars.”

“Downton” has always used a harsh, gray “outside world” motif to justify the big house as a useful refuge. Last season had trench warfare in the Somme. This year, it’s a prison cell with John Bates.

Brendan Coyle has always played the long-suffering valet with an edge, and that rage roars to the surface in captivity. Being wrongfully imprisoned forces Bates to shed his cloak of foolhardy martyrdom to survive, but he probably hasn’t thrown it away.

In just six episodes (not counting another Christmas episode that just aired in the U.K.), the third season is designed for maximum amusement, outrage and grief. Even though its big tragedy is telegraphed far in advance, tears will fall.

And the Crawleys had better learn from their losses this time, because even “Downton Abbey” can’t make it through the 1920s with nothing changing except the flapper dresses.

‘Secrets of Highclere Castle’

Before the season premiere, KCPT and KTWU will show a documentary on the history of the Hampshire estate house that serves as the setting for “Downton Abbey.” The special airs at 7 Sunday night.

‘The Gilded Age’

“Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for the screenplay of director Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” (2001), is working on a show about New York in the 1880s. NBC’s “The Gilded Age” could make it onto the air sometime this year.

The dowager countess speaks

We asked readers to share their favorite zingers delivered by Maggie Smith’s Lady Violet, who gets all the best lines in “Downton Abbey” and makes the most of them.

Lady Cora (referring to Mrs. Crawley): “She’s such a martyr.”

Lady Violet: “Then we must find a more enticing scaffold.”

Lady Violet: “You are quite wonderful the way you see room for improvement wherever you look. I never knew such reforming zeal.”

Mrs. Crawley: “I take that as a compliment.”

Lady Violet: “I must have said it wrong.”

“I’m not a romantic. But even I concede that the heart does not exist solely for the purpose of pumping blood.”

“I’m a woman, Mary. I can be as contrary as I choose.”

“Really. It’s like living in a second-rate hotel where guests keep arriving and no one seems to leave.”

“Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s terribly middle-class.”

“It always happens when you give these little people power, it goes to their heads like strong drink.”

“What is a weekend?”

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