PBS // 2012 // 525 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // January 29th, 2013
Violet Crawley: "So encouraging to see the future unfurl."
Martha Levinson: "As long as you remember it will bear no resemblance to the past."
The year is 2013, but it might as well be 1920 for eager American viewers looking forward to the latest season of the hit UK import Downton Abbey. The costume drama, which premiered in 2010, has proven a crossover hit not just geographically, but with people who don't normally watch PBS. The mix of classic British drama traditions with a twisting soap opera narrative is still intact for Downton Abbey: Season Three as the Crawley clan and assorted servants leave behind the heartbreak of World War I for a brand new decade of challenge and change.
After two seasons of romantic tension, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens, Hilde) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery, Anna Karenina) are finally engaged, ready to begin a new life together as the future caretakers of Downton Abbey. Season Three begins with their wedding, a gala affair attended by the whole family, including Mary's American grandmother (special guest star Shirley MacLaine). Just as things appear happiest, however, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, Twenty Twelve) and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, Kick-Ass) receive bad news that puts Downton's future in jeopardy, just as Matthew receives his own news that threatens to break up his marriage before it begins. And that's just the first two episodes.
Given the modern economic climate, it might seem odd that a show about a rich family with rich people problems would have become a smash hit in the UK and the US. The show might have lured in the stereotypical PBS viewer with its high production values and British accents, but the show's staying power is rooted in the way it contrasts the rigid values of a bygone era with the unstoppable force of social change -- like Mad Men at its least subtle. Downton Abbey subverts the classic British upstairs-downstairs formula, setting the drama in an era of upperclass upheaval.
Those inclined to find modern political parallels in the crumbling British aristocracy will have plenty to savor this season. Women's issues, socialism, religious intolerance, and even gay rights are in focus as the struggle moves from the European front to Downton itself. For viewers who love the show for its period details, the jump forward into the '20s brings new fashions -- with not one but two weddings and guest star Shirley MacLaine's flashy American fur and feathers.
For all the political commentary and high fashion, Downton Abbey's strength is the way it blends highbrow and lowbrow into a soap opera for the Met Opera crowd. Creator Julian Fellowes sets his ensemble drama in a time when everyone from lords to ladies' maids were expected to play roles written by years of tradition. Once you understand Downton Abbey's world of footmen and formal wear, the fun is in watching the characters upend the rules.
Fellowes spent the first season establishing those rules, going so deep into the nuances of British law that PBS had host Laura Linney explain some of the terms and ideas that might be confusing to American viewers. Season Two brought the destructive power of war to the series, as Matthew went off to fight in World War I and Downton was transformed into a makeshift hospital for injured soldiers. Season Three is more intimate, focusing on the travails of the Crawley family, from the bad investment that nearly ruins Lord Grantham to the painful reintegration of Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay, Albatross) and her Irish revolutionary husband Tom (Allen Leech, Rome) into the household. Below floors, things are just as tumultuous. After two seasons as co-conspirators, Thomas (Rob James-Collier, Coronation Street) and Miss O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran, Benidorm) turn their scheming against each other with disastrous results; while Anna (Joanne Froggatt, Coronation Street) continues her fight to prove that her husband, Bates (Brendan Coyle, The Raven) didn't murder his ex-wife.
Previous seasons walked a fine line between the classy and the salacious. Downton Abbey: Season Three wades deep into prime time soap territory, piling on contrived conflict and shocking twists. The second season's Christmas special brought a satisfying end to Matthew and Mary's will-they-won't-they relationship, so it seems like a cheap trick to start Season Three with the couple once again at each other's throats, this time over what Matthew chooses to do with an unexpected inheritance. Once that nonsense is resolved, Fellowes is free to pursue more interesting matters -- pitting Matthew against Robert for control of Downton's future, and exploring the conflict between tradition and modernity in Tom Branson's search for his place in the family. Some of the subplots feel preachy -- Isobel (Penelope Wilton, Shaun of the Dead), for example, lays it on thick in her crusade to help a former maid rebuild her reputation. Other stories, like Mrs Hughes' (Phyllis Logan, Lovejoy) health scare, go nowhere fast. It's a tribute to Fellowes and his writers' world-building that, even when the plot contorts in uncomfortable ways, the show doesn't fall apart.
The storylines may be uneven, but Downton Abbey remains one of the best written shows on television on the strength of its dialogue. In addition to clothes and set design, Fellowes has a keen ear for language, using what characters say and don't say to express emotions they are expected to hold in check. That layered meaning works equally well as comedy. Downton Abbey is a very funny show. Everyone gets in the occasional jab, but the funniest lines belong to Dame Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess. Smith is still one of the best things about the show, a bastion of the old ways who is savvy enough to understand the realities of the modern world.
Downton Abbey is a gorgeous series. Even in standard definition, Season Three's 1.78:1 transfer captures every historical detail, from the ornate interiors of Downton, to a grimy London prison, to the brilliant greens of the Scottish Highlands. It's a show that can be enjoyed with the volume turned down. Turn that volume up, though, and you'll find a pleasing 2.0 Stereo audio track that balances John Lunn's sweeping score with crisp dialogue. A 5.1 mix might have opened things up a bit, but I imagine even stereo would be too newfangled for Mr. Carson.
Downton Abbey: Season Three comes with more than two hours of bonus features, divided between the first and third discs:
* "Downton Abbey: Behind the Drama" (48:32): This made-for-ITV special aired at the end of Season Two, before that year's Christmas special. If nothing else, it's a good summary of what happened the first two seasons.
* "Downton in 1920" (17:22): New fashions for a new decade in this style-focused featurette.
* "The Wedding of Lady Mary" (13:02): The gala event from the season premiere gets the royal treatment here, with special attention paid to anti-paparazzi preparation.
* "The Wedding of Lady Edith" (16:03): The season's second wedding has a different result than the first, and this bonus feature has a different tone, focusing less on the dress and makeup than in how it kick-started Lady Edith's (Laura Carmichael) transformation into a modern woman.
* "The Men of Downton Abbey" (9:03): This profile of major male characters and their season arcs.
* "Shirley MacLaine at Downton" (9:08): Whatever you think of the stunt casting, MacLaine's appearance on the show was a big deal, as evidenced by the compliments showered on the legendary actress by the Downton regulars.
* "Behind the Scenes: The Cricket Match" (6:44): A dissection of the episode eight's climactic cricket match between the manor and townspeople.
* "Behind the Scenes: A Journey to the Highlands" (12:47): This season's feature-length Christmas special transplants the Crawleys to a Scottish castle. This featurette covers hunting, dancing, and dining, with lip service paid to the episode's frustrating final twist. It's too bad the real reason for the ending is ignored, but at least they acknowledge the controversy.
I expect most fan discussions will focus on the way the Christmas special ends (I won't spoil it here), but there's plenty more to argue about in Downton Abbey's uneven third season. Although the show's signature wit is in full force, it ventures too often into soap opera territory. In the absence of a major historical event, the season plays like a checklist of major life events crammed into nine episodes. I have hope for the series' future but I worry that, like Downton, it won't survive the transition into the modern world.
I'm not against you, Robert. Not Guilty!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 525 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site