Maggie Smith, left, and Michelle Dockery star in "Downton Abbey." (PBS )
"Downton Abbey," a period British TV series that has become an American obsession, is back Sunday night for its third season, in the framework of "Masterpiece: Classic." For the several millions who have waited months for its return, it is a day that has not come too soon; I am not unhappy to see it myself.
With its castle and costumes and superior production values — the show is never less than lovely to look at, and most every second of it is deliciously acted, in a way you are meant to notice — it is comfort food packaged as a gourmet meal, old soap in a Tiffany container. And after a sometimes wayward second season, with its distractions of war and influenza, the present series brings both a return to form and to its original subject matter: the preservation of the estate.
From the pen of Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park"), it is, briefly, the story of a big house (and a little house nearby) and the people who live there and suffer as a group from poor communication skills and an excess of pride. A few, mostly below stairs, are schemers, Maggie Smith's dowager countess being the notable plotter above, though she works for her family's reputation rather than personal advancement, having nowhere higher to advance.
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"Downton" is paradoxical at heart: It satisfies our yearning for what appears a more clear-cut time, when everyone knew his or her place and its rules, even as it argues, possibly in spite of itself, for its destruction. It celebrates the old days and ways we are glad not to live in or have to follow.
And although a success at home in the U.K. — a fourth season and a prequel are in the works — it might have been specifically created to exploit romantic American notions of life in a British country house, as those grand Gothic-y piles are quaintly called, as well as our inbred post-colonial impression that we are above all that. It runs on a mixture of envy and desire.
Almost in recognition of this fact, we get a visit this year from Shirley MacLaine as the Yankee mother of the Anglicized lady of the house, the countess Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), all sharp angles and straight talk. And straight talk is just what these characters like to avoid, though they are also forever explaining themselves, in order that no point go unmissed.
Last year's plotting at times seemed practical rather than organic, crafted merely to build up or destroy the credit of this or that character, as when Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), entered into an unconvincing, all-but-consummated affair with a housemaid. Even the well-loved witticisms of the dowager countess felt a bit weighted and compulsory.
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This year, by contrast, the drama flows more naturally; it cuts closer to home, and nearer the bone, allowing Smith and McGovern, particularly, deeper material than has previously been their portion; it's especially gratifying to see Smith getting a break from the Lady Bracknell one-liners. (But fear not: Though none of these folks is having much fun, the year is studded with Fellowes' usual, precision-crafted laugh lines.)
At times, Fellowes worked his characters like puppets, like pawns, and while he has made sure to humanize some of his harder cases, as with the self-promoting-valet Thomas (Rob James-Collier), other, milder characters have been, and continue to be, routinely abused. The perennially disappointed Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Matthew's modestly ambitious valet-butler, Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), in particular seem the victims of a sort of authorial bullying; it feels quite unfair.
And then there was poor Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle), Matthew's second-season fiancée, dead from flu, her survival being inconvenient to the need to marry him to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), the oldest and outwardly the coldest of the Crawley girls. And, indeed, last year's "Downton" was sealed with a kiss — a kiss in the falling snow — that made any foregoing deficiencies moot.
Now it is spring 1920, and we are finally to the business of tying that long-hoped-for knot.
Meanwhile: Youngest sister Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), pregnant, is in Ireland with husband Tom (Allen Leech), the family's old chauffeur, but not for long. Robert's valet, Bates (Brendan Coyle), remains in prison, convicted of killing his ex-wife, while new wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt), Lady Mary's lady's maid, works to clear his name.
O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), envious and revengeful maid to the countess Cora (McGovern, well-used and excellent this season), is still at odds with Thomas, stirring up dissension to what she hopes will be her own advantage. Why anyone still trusts either of them is beyond me.