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A New “Downton” Admirer Loves Season Premiere

I made a mistake on my Christmas shopping list.

You see I bought my girlfriend the DVDs of the first two seasons of “Downton Abbey.”

She asked for the present so it wasn’t a mistake in the way you might think. I knew she would like it.

My mistake was in giving it to her over the holidays, which meant I had an extended date with Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, and his wife Cora, as well as Mr. Bates, Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Lady Mary Crawley and the rest of the 50 or so characters whose scandals and schemes have become an American obsession.

It wasn’t enough that I sat through “Les Miserables” twice (see earlier blog) on consecutive days over the holidays — an experience that my oldest son thought should have gotten me a medal or possibly earned me a knighthood. I also had to watch 15 episodes of “Downton” over six days.

Mistakes don’t get much bigger than that. But guess what? I ended up practically loving “Downton” and was sorry to see the second season end with Mr. Bates in prison for supposedly murdering his wife (we know he didn’t do it), and Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) finally getting engaged after everyone and everything that had gotten in the way had died or become irrelevant.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to watch it twice, like I did “Les Miz.” But it did mean I so eagerly awaited the two-hour premiere of season three that I went to the PBS pressroom upon my return from holiday to watch it online. For the rest of you less fortunate people without the proper credentials, it airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on WNED-TV, the local PBS affiliate.

Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery: Characters Wed on Sunday

Before I tell you why I think the season three premiere is better than any of the episodes in the first two seasons, let me tell you what I’ve concluded about “Downton” after watching the first two seasons. It really is just “Dallas” with better accents. The head of the household just doesn’t have to run an oil company — or do any other work for that matter. His job is to uphold English traditions early in the 20th century before, during and after World War I.

Like the Ewings, Lord Grantham does have to worry about money. That is especially true this season when the family fortune is in jeopardy because of a bad investment.

The cast includes a lot of pretty young women whose goal is to find a good man, which back in the early 1900s in England usually meant they were wealthy and preferably younger than the chairs everyone sat in.

Meanwhile, the downstairs crew of footmen, valets, cooks, and maids are a collection of schemers and salt-of-the-earth types who have to worry about making sure the rich people upstairs they work for don’t wear messy shirts or coats and eat well and often.

There is a lot of talking about the obligations of the rich to behave like they own the world, and there is some scandalous behavior that is laughably tame by 21st century standards.

And then there is Maggie Smith, who plays an acerbic grandma, Violet, who steals every scene with lines that are drier than a good martini.

There have been several theories why so many Americans love “Downton” so much, including the idea it speaks to a simpler time and we love watching some rich Brits make jackasses of themselves.

That could all be true. But my reasons for enjoying it are much simpler:

I love hearing the distinguished voices of the male actors – Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham), Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates) and Jim Carter (Mr. Carson). The voices probably make it seem acceptable to American intellectuals to feel like it is good manners to watch something more important than a soap opera, which is what “Downton” really is.

I love that one of the most evil guys in the first two seasons, Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen), owned newspapers and essentially blackmailed Mary to marry him before she called the whole thing off.

Don’t tell my girlfriend this, but I also like looking at Michelle Dockery (Mary), and Jessica Brown-Findlay, who plays Mary’s rebellious sister, Lady Sybill, who married the Irish chauffeur. Truth be told, I am also an admirer of Elizabeth McGovern, the actress who plays Cora, the American woman Lord Grantham initially married for her money before he fell in love with her.

Rob James-Collier, who plays the evil, downstairs schemer, Thomas, also is the kind of villain that J.R. Ewing would admire.

And then there is Maggie Smith. There is always Maggie Smith. That brings me back to Sunday’s season three premiere, which arrives after a big season four spoiler was revealed in England. I am not going to tell you about it because knowing the future could ruin the enjoyment of season three for some viewers. The season three premiere is set in the spring of 1920 and introduces 78-year-old Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s rich American mother (and Mary’s other grandma) Martha Levinson. Needless to say, the two grandmas don’t see eye to eye about much of anything, which means Smith and MacLaine fight to see who can chew the scenery the best.

“When I see her I’m reminded of the virtues of the English,” Violet tells her future son-in-law Matthew.

“Isn’t she American?” asks Matthew, speaking of Martha.

“Exactly,” replies Violet.

Smith gets numerous dryly funny lines like that Sunday in the premiere. She is expected to get the good lines and deliver them with relish. That isn’t what makes the premiere better than the first 15 episodes of the first two seasons.

The thing that makes Sunday’s opener is that it packs an emotional wallop on a few occasions, which is something that was missing from most episodes in the first two seasons. Emotion, after all, isn’t what the Brits do well. Matthew, who isn’t into all the formalities and traditions (he has the revolutionary idea that he can dress himself) is in the middle of most of the moving moments.

Make no mistake, judging by the premiere, this season’s “Downton” will be must-see TV for Americans again. Please don’t tell my girlfriend  that I voluntarily watched it without her. And for heaven’s sake, don’t tell my oldest son, either.

Rating: 4 stars out of 4


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