Late in the third season of “Downton Abbey,” loyal butler Mr. Carson is horrified to learn of a breach of etiquette committed by the ladies of Downton when they choose decency over decorum.
“Perhaps the world is becoming a kinder place,” suggests Downton”s housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes.
“You say ‘kinder,”” Mr. Carson huffs. “I say ‘weaker and less disciplined.””
It”s this conflict between what was and what will be that fills nearly every frame of “Downton Abbey,” which begins its new season in America on Sunday night at 9 on PBS (British audiences have already seen all the episodes). Some of the people of Downton – both the aristocrats and their servants – can”t wait for the world to start moving away from the rules and traditions that drive their every waking moment. Others will recite those rules, chapter and verse, to their last breath.
There are times when the series” Emmy-winning creator Julian Fellowes is able to mine riveting drama from the push and pull between these ideas – to show both the danger of following the rules no matter the circumstance, but also the unexpected kindnesses that can come as a result of them. But there are far too many other times where it feels like Fellowes – who was made a baron in 2011 – fetishizing these grand old estates, their lords and ladies, and all the men and women who worked to make their beautiful lifestyle possible.
I”ve talked about this in previous seasons of “Downton.” The show is handsomely made, features a sterling collection of British actors delivering crackling dialogue. Yet it”s also a reminder that the Ebert axiom that “what a story is about isn”t as important as how it”s about it” has its limits. I can admire the craft on display, and the performances by Maggie Smith, Michelle Dockery and others and yet ultimately not care in the slightest whether Lord Grantham gets to hold onto Downton, which is again a major plot point at the start of the new season. Your mileage will vary on how much you can invest in the problems of the landed gentry – and millions of “Downton” viewers, Emmy voters, etc., certainly disagree – but for me, the series remains something I can respect far more than I can like it.
That said, this third season is a notable improvement over the previous one, in which Fellowes gave in too much to melodramatic plot twists (Matthew Crawley”s miraculous recovery from paralysis, the burned soldier claiming to be a long-lost relative suffering from amnesia) and misery only for the sake of delaying happiness (Mr. Bates” entanglement with his evil wife, the many near-misses between Matthew and Lady Mary). “Downton” in season 3 is still a soap opera (as it was in season 1, as well), but it”s a smarter one; it”s harder to see the puppet strings Fellowes is pulling this year to get to his desired outcomes.
And it”s fun to watch Shirley MacLaine, who appears in the season”s early hours as Martha Levinson, the American mother of Elizabeth McGovern”s Lady Cora. I wish MacLaine was playing an actual character, rather than an embodiment of all the differences between America and England at this time in history – it feels like every line of dialogue she delivers is greeted with a remark about how free-spirited and opinionated Americans are – but when you get a chance to watch MacLaine and Maggie Smith together, the performances compensate for some of the writing.