The second season of “Downton Abbey” was complicated, in many respects, by playing out against the backdrop of World War I. By that measure, season three marks a sort-of return to the first season’s focus on the future of the grand estate, its noble family and the servants toiling on their behalf, amid a period of social upheaval. Engrossing from its first frames, the new season probably marks a slight uptick in quality, and beyond its existing legions of loyal fans should benefit from Shirley MacLaine’s highly promotable presence in the premiere.
Without giving too much away, if there’s a focus to the new season, it’s the latest steps into true adulthood involving the three grown daughters of the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), with the romance of Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Stevens) having provided the show’s swoon-worthy spine. Throw in the rebellious Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) — who wed the chauffeur (Allen Leech) — and the perpetually suffering Edith (Laura Carmichael), and there’s enough meat here for a bloody good season, even before one begins exploring the abundant machinations and delicious scheming downstairs.
There are new additions to the servant ranks, too, but also the little matter of gentleman’s butler John Bates (Brendan Coyle, the unlikeliest of heartthrobs) and his bride, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), who continues to labor to free her spouse, imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit.
Credit writer-creator Julian Fellowes with managing to spray humor and romance on all the old-fashioned melodrama, which includes, this time around, the sheer joy of seeing Maggie Smith’s scene-stealing Dowager Countess swap droll, understated insults with MacLaine as Martha, Cora’s brash American mother. The actresses were no doubt paid for their efforts, but they appear to be having such a good time, a suspicion lingers they might have done these scenes for free.
How Fellowes manages to juggle his astoundingly large cast with such effortlessness remains a marvel, but having seen six of the installments (PBS again withheld the concluding “Christmas episode,” and fans would be well advised to avoid across-the-Pond spoilers), the maestro is quite clearly at the top of his game.
In a sense, “Downton” has nimbly pivoted from the macro of the war years to the micro of life, love, family dynamics and where aristocracy fits in as England advances further into the 20th century. “We need some good news in this house,” a member of the upstairs family says, during a particularly trying moment.
To anyone who has followed the ups and downs of “Downton Abbey,” the good news begins with those first strains of John Lunn’s lustrous score, and doesn’t abate until Fellowes and company have wrung every last ounce of emotion from these finely embroidered characters. And for PBS, whose programs seldom inspire such ardor or widespread appreciation, that should add up to very good news indeed.