January 7, 2013



Ah yes… the clink of silver on fine china, the lords and ladies sitting down to dinner in their best evening dress, the barely perceptible rustle of servants smoothly executing their duties behind the scenes–it’s all back.  America’s favorite TV vacation destination (certainly more appealing than the Hamptons of ABC’s competing Revenge, a place that becomes more cuckoo every week) is the 1920 England of DOWNTON ABBEY, the PBS blockbuster that’s back for its third season.

Downton fumbled a bit last year–the Canadian imposter storyline was the show’s version of that time Landry killed the guy on Friday Night Lights–but the 2-hour Season 3 premiere, written by series creator Julian Fellowes and directed by Brian Percival, seems to be putting it very much back on track.  The season picks up shortly after it left off last year with the rhapsodic, snowy proposal (finally!) of romantic lead Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), reluctant potential heir of Downton due to British law, to the love of his life and distant cousin, strong-willed Lady Mary (Michele Dockery).  When we rejoin the family, it’s a week or so before the nuptials, providing an opportunity for what no one at Downton would ever call the whole mishpocheh to come together, including black sheep daughter Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her scandalous ex-chauffeur Irish husband Branson (Allen Leech).  Even the previously-unseen Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), filthy rich American mother of Cora, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), has arrived for the big event.

Of course, there must be drama, and the key crisis of the season goes back to the original thrust of the series, the possible upheaval of the family from its ancestral home.  This time, rather than the inability of Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to leave the estate to his daughters (who also include Laura Carmichael as the desperately single Lady Edith), the problem is more prosaic:  Robert has invested his entire fortune–which is to say Cora’s entire fortune–in a Canadian railway line that went bust, and consequently the Crawleys may not be able to pay the upkeep on Downton.  As it happens, Matthew is about to come into a(nother) inheritance that would solve that problem tidily, but Matthew is the most conscious-stricken man in all of England, and since the fortune comes from the father of the girl he left for Lady Mary, he refuses to accept it.  Well, bother.  This forces Mary and her paternal grandmother, the endlessly estimable Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), to try and milk Martha for the funds.

There’s no shortage of trouble below-stairs as well, what with the arrival of new footman/valet Alfred (Matt Milne), a relative of always-scheming O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran), which leads to some resentment from the house’s other weasel, Thomas (Rob James-Collier), and–deliciously–the first open warfare between the two of them.  Plus there’s health trouble for Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and, of course, the never ending misery of unjustly convicted murderer and former valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his loyal, loving wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt), maid to Lady Mary, who’s determined to clear his name.

Fellowes’ gift and inspiration was to take the old-fashioned melodrama of classic English manor house sagas and move it at double-speed, preserving the traditional appeal of stories about true love and property rights but with a modern, more accessible pace.  The undercurrent of the show is the revolution that’s just beginning to destroy the centuries-old lifestyle of its characters, and that revolution is evident in the style of the series itself, which hurtles from one mini-cliffhanger to the next.  Downton almost never seems to strain–with the exception of its efforts to keep Bates in the story, a lugubrious plot that feels like it’s still around because no one can figure out quite how to get rid of it.

As good as Fellowes’ writing is, he’s blessed with a spectacular cast.  The actors are all so assured and emotionally committed to their parts that it comes as a small shock when people like Bonneville and Dockery turn up in modern-day roles (it’s as though there’s been a quiet incidence of time travel).  Smith, of course, is an institution unto herself; there may not be another performer on earth who can bring the same humor and imperious authority to the line “Are you quite finished?” that she can.  Smartly, while bringing in MacLaine as her American counterpart, Fellowes doesn’t try to make her match Smith zinger for zinger, giving her a more wryly distanced amusement at the British and their antics.

Downton Abbey isn’t profound or innovative drama in the way that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on TV in recent years–it’s a warm, comfy blanket rather than a set of shock therapy electrodes.  It asks us to settle in and enjoy an era when an entire world turned on the fortunes of a stately home, and the wearing of white- or black-tie at dinner was a major crisis.  There will always be an England, and for some time, at least, there will also be a Downton Abbey, perhaps the purest, most luxurious piece of escapism on television.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."