Critic’s Notebook: ‘Downton Abbey’ Begins Third Season on Sunday on PBS

January 3rd, 2013

Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television

“Downton Abbey” returns for its third season on PBS on Sunday.

A lot of time and discussion has been spent deciphering the extraordinary success of “Downton Abbey,” but it’s actually pretty simple. This series about British aristocrats and their servants is “Fifty Shades of Grey”: soft-core pornography, but fixated on breeding and heritage rather than kinky sex.

The infamous “Fifty Shades” S-and-M trilogy by E. L. James began as an e-book and became a publishing sensation by adding a frisson of “Story of O”-style bondage to an old-fashioned romance novel. And “Downton Abbey,” which was supposed to last only one season, is beginning its third on PBS on Sunday and is basically a romance novel with a thick dollop of “The Forsyte Saga.” The books have gall; the television series has Galsworthy.

The costumes and settings differ, but they rely on the same formula. In both works no crisis lasts forever, and no loss, however saddening, is insurmountable. The same set pieces are repeated, with some but not much variation, from one book — or season — to another. The novels keep offering whips-and-velvet couplings between the innocent young heroine and her rich, handsome dominator/lover. “Downton Abbey” reconfigures conflicts between the lords and ladies upstairs that are mirrored by tensions among the servants below.

Both offer fans pleasurable suspense with only the faint intimation of actual pain. Unpleasantness doesn’t last long or leave marks, be it a whipping in the secret playroom or combat injuries in the trenches of World War I.

Season 2 of “Downton Abbey” was too much of a good thing — enjoyable but almost embarrassingly so. Season 3 is more of the same. World War I is over, and the British Empire is already in its twilight, but somehow the devastation of the epoch hasn’t fully sunk in. Change is in the air, but not yet in the bloodstream. The inhabitants of Downton Abbey, upstairs and down, talk of progress (an electric toaster scandalizes the butler), but without much awareness of what it will do to their way of life.

It’s that cheeriness that makes the show such delightful escapism. “Downton Abbey” has all the romance and elegance of “Brideshead Revisited” without the censure and foreboding that distinguished that and other more somber examinations of the British class system, be it the 1993 movie “The Remains of the Day” or Ford Madox Ford’s masterpiece, “Parade’s End,” which was adapted for the BBC by Tom Stoppard and will be coming to HBO this year.

The new season of “Downton Abbey” picks up in 1920. Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and his true love, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), are at long last preparing for their wedding, a society event so exalted it lures even Lady Mary’s daunting American grandmother, Martha, played by Shirley MacLaine. Martha is rich, presumptuous and pushy, the kind of woman who greets the bride by saying, “Tell me all of your wedding plans, and I’ll see what I can do to improve them.”

And she is almost a match for the indomitable Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Maggie Smith. Violet tells her daughter-in-law, Cora, that she is looking forward to seeing Cora’s mother again: “When I’m with her I am reminded of the virtues of the English.”

Matthew takes the bait. “But isn’t she American?” he asks.

“Exactly,” Violet replies.

There are a few new flirtations downstairs, but mostly old love stories are revived with a fresh cycle of separation and reunion. Bates (Brendan Coyle), the valet, is in prison for murdering his former wife, and his loyal current wife, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), won’t stop trying to clear his name.

Neither will the Downton household — the estate’s family and the help are on her side. When a servant mutters something about Bates’s being a convicted murderer, the butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), puts the impertinent upstart in his place.

“In this house,” he intones, “Mr. Bates is a wronged man seeking justice.”

And justice in this world isn’t such a long shot. On “Downton Abbey” judicial sentences can be reversed with the same ease that spine injuries are cured and curdled mayonnaise is restored. Fortunes lost can be regained, some class lines can be breached, and love triumphs again and again, and then one more time.

“Downton Abbey” is a fantasy that gets sillier in prolongation, and as is the case with “Fifty Shades of Grey,” there is a huge audience that cannot get enough.

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