'Downton' kicks it up a notch in season three

Last Sunday’s U.S. premiere of Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey garnered a very respectable 7.9 million viewers, making it one of the most viewed programs of all time on PBS and surpassing the audience of fellow cult favorite Mad Men. The season three premiere of the program, which was originally imported from the UK in 2010, was anything but disappointing. Dame Maggie Smith (aka the Dowager Countess of Grantham) sums it up best: “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

The Brit export details the lives of the wealthy Crawley family, living in post-Edwardian-era England. As the episode opened, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between contemporary events and those in the 1920s England. Just as the United States approached the dreaded fiscal cliff, the Crawley family was forced to confront an unforeseen financial difficulty. Unresolved even at the end of the 66-minute premiere, Lord Grantham found himself and his family almost completely desolate because of a bad play in the stock market. It was a mark of a changing world: the inability of the aristocracy to retain social and financial superiority.

A revolutionary spirit hung in the air as the episode unwound. The eloped couple Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) and Branson (Allen Leech) returned from paradise (or Ireland) to a family divided on the subject of their union. We watched as Branson resisted his new position at the family table rather than downstairs with the rest of the staff. Ever the defiant outsider, the former chauffeur caused a ruckus at dinner, first refusing to buy a set of tails for dinner (the horror!) and then daring to stand up for Irish independence.

Another family member in town was Lady Cora Grantham’s American mother, played by Shirley MacLaine. Small yet imposing and much more brash than her British counterparts, MacLaine kept the Americanisms and insults coming, resulting in a brilliant and rapid-fire repartee between herself and Smith.

And then there was the Victorian romance that has made Downton a hit with everyone from my sorority sisters to my grandmother. Lady Edith (Lauren Carmichael), who just can’t seem to catch a break in the romance department, was discouraged from pursuing Sir Anthony, a balding neighbor deemed too old by Lord Grantham. In one of the more tense moments of the episode, the middle daughter said to her father “almost all the men we grew up with are dead,” bringing to the fore the scale of destruction wreaked by World War I.

On a happier note, the main event of the episode was the long-anticipated wedding of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). Any hopeless romantics sitting rapt with expectation of the vows were disappointed: The scene ended abruptly with Mary at the altar whispering to Matthew, “I wouldn’t want to be predictable.” In the same way, it’s hard to tell what might happen as season three of Downton Abbey progresses: With a modernizing world, a devalued aristocracy and constant, twisting love stories, life at Downton is not likely to be predictable any time soon.

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