TV review: 'Downton Abbey'

Posted 8:53pm on Wednesday, Jan. 02, 2013

As soap-operatic and melodramatic as Downton Abbey is, it can often be best to think of the British hit as a comedy.

The dialogue is certainly wittier than in many sitcoms, and the situations occasionally take a farcical turn. But sometimes the comedy is unintentional; three seasons in, it's hard not to chuckle a little when the writers find ultimately simple and extra-convenient resolutions to a couple of episodes' worth of overwrought plotlines.

But during the third season, which begins its American run Sunday night on PBS' Masterpiece Classic, a tragedy occurs that transcends all of that, and it packs a wallop, as it affects even the most sarcastic, conniving and imperious characters. It's easy enough to find spoilers about this twist -- the third season recently ended in Britain, and recaps of every episode are on the Internet if you want to look for them -- but even if you know what's coming, the plot turn is still emotionally effective.

Downtown Abbey, which began Season 1 in 1912 and is now entering the '20s, has always been about change, as the tradition-bound characters' world becomes increasingly more modern, and that change is accelerating in the post-World War I era. Few people are more resistant to change in Season 3 than Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), the lord of Downton Abbey. He places more importance on class and on doing things the way they've always been done than he does on his instincts and those of his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and their three adult daughters (Michelle Dockery, Jessica Brown Findlay and Laura Carmichael) as well as the various men in their lives.

Even Robert's mother, the Dowager Countess of Grantham -- played by the priceless Maggie Smith, who elevates every line she speaks (and they're already quality lines) -- is proving more adaptable than he is this time around. She's willing to make changes for the sake of family harmony.

And this family has more than its share of disharmony, which is often portrayed via amusing dinner-table scenes in which someone delivers a velvet-glove (or less subtle) insult that stops conversation as everyone glances at each other in nervous embarrassment. (In the season premiere, Shirley MacLaine has what amounts to an extended, deliciously scenery-chewing cameo as Cora's mother, and MacLaine's sparring with Smith is one of the highlights of the whole series.)

As much as Downton Abbey is about change, it's also about class and dignity, and the Crowleys' servants have varying levels of both. The introduction of several new young characters in the servants' quarters makes for a chain of misfired infatuations, but the key plotlines involve the rivalry between scheming lady's maid O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and ruthless footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier), and the love story between housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and her husband, valet Bates (Brendan Coyle), who's in prison for the death of his ex-wife. (And although it appears he's there wrongly, Bates certainly holds his own among the inmates.) The Anna-Bates plotline is one of the series' most popular, but after the writers drag on the prison scenes for a few episodes, you may find yourself wishing that they'd just get on with things.

The series isn't just about the way the characters have changed, but the ways we've changed as a society in the past century or so. That's illustrated most strongly in the characters' reactions to a former servant who's now a former prostitute, and a little less strongly in a subplot involving homosexuality, which is resolved in a moment of open-mindedness for Robert that doesn't exactly ring true with his other actions during the series.

In fact, a lot of things don't ring true, and the series sometimes borders on the preposterous -- but it gets away with it because creator/producer Julian Fellowes and the writing staff have come up with such a kaleidoscope of colorful characters, and they take care to give even the most minor ones sharp dialogue. It's soap opera, sure, but it's also sophisticated stuff that gives us an inside glimpse of a different world, and provokes thought about our own.

Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872

Twitter: @rphilpot

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