The clothes. The stolen pantry kisses. The dog's backside that signals the
start of a new episode.
"Downton Abbey," the posh British soap opera that teased out the Anglophile within millions of Americans, returns for a third season on Sunday as part of PBS' "Masterpiece Classic." The two-hour premiere will be preceded by a marathon airing of the second season, starting at 11 a.m.
"Downton Abbey" drew 17.1 million viewers over seven episodes last year, the most ever for a "Masterpiece" presentation. Created by Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the similarly upstairs-downstairs 2001 film "Gosford Park," "Downton" is quick-paced rather than stately, and it explores and expands on the landed-gentry limitations of Jane Austen or Merchant Ivory British period pieces.
Maintaining the estate overseen by Robert and Cora Crawley, a.k.a. Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) and finding suitable husbands for their daughters are top concerns, but so are the needs of a household staff that interacts easily with the manor's lords and ladies.
"We go into a very recognizable, expressly British drama -- and it is a very familiar world in literature and culture -- and then render it in a very contemporary way, to our tastes today," "Downton Abbey" executive producer Gareth Neame said by phone from Boston during a press stop there last month.
"Each of the 25 characters offers a different entry point. It's the way we consume media as a modern audience. We are used to that kind of storytelling."
Each scene usually offers just enough time for Maggie Smith, as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, to offer a witty remark, or for conniving footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) to puff on a cigarette and plot his next move. The show's first two seasons also traversed the Titanic's sinking, World War I and the 1918 influenza epidemic.
These moments entertained or saddened as viewers anticipated the next time headstrong Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) would see Downton Abbey heir Matthew (Dan Stevens), her handsome, levelheaded distant cousin and likely true love, or bright-eyed housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) might get a kiss from stoic valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), when Bates got a rare break from Sisyphean struggles.
Few modern TV shows offer "a very big dollop of good, old-fashioned slow-burn romance" as "Downton" does, Neame said.
At Season 2's conclusion, Matthew had proposed to Mary (again), and this time she accepted. Their planned wedding is the front-burner story as the third season opens. (Key world events continue to weave their way into the story. In Season 3, the women's suffrage movement and Irish republicanism will touch on life in Downton Abbey.)
Tonight's episode also marks the introduction of Shirley MacLaine as Lady Grantham's pistol of an American mother.
For those of you cutting crusts off sandwiches in preparation for a "Downton" viewing party tonight, here is a (non-spoiler) look at what's new in Season 3, along with some background information on the show:
The other mother-in-law
As the extremely wealthy American Mrs. Levinson, Shirley MacLaine is like the dowager countess, only less circumspect and even less apologetic. Mrs. Levinson never lets her daughter, Lady Grantham, or her daughter's husband, Lord Grantham, forget that it was her late husband's money that kept Downton
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