"Downton Abbey" Roars Back

The British soap returns to PBS Sunday with a Roaring Twenties setting – and a potentially ferocious Maggie Smith vs. Shirley MacLaine showdown.

By Jere Hester
|  Friday, Jan 4, 2013  |  Updated 10:25 PM EDT
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"Downton Abbey" returns to American TV Sunday.

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The nearly four-month gap between the start of Season 3 of "Downton Abbey" on the UK's ITV and Sunday night's return of the British period drama on PBS proved both ridiculous – and appropriate.

There's no reason for such a delay in our connected, on-demand media world (and we're sure plenty of impatient fans on these shores found ways to get an early peek online and otherwise). The time lapse, though, is fittingly emblematic of what's coming this season on the Golden Globe-nominated “Downtown Abbey”: an outmoded way of doing things clashing against new realities.

The latest season begins in the Roaring Twenties. But at Downton Abbey, home to a benevolent lord, some fiery ladies and servants possessing varying degrees of loyalty, we’re in for more signs of the British lion being reduced to a yelp amid rapidly changing times.

Still, there’s some life yet in the old manor as the House of Grantham girds for a clash of the sharp-tongued, feisty women of a certain (advanced) age. Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess is set to take on her American daughter-in-law’s visiting mother, Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine.

The battle of the Old World oldster vs. New World oldster promises to offer a boisterous comic companion to the growing a string of unheeded wakeup calls that began in Season 1 with the sinking of the Titanic, a symbol of the sunset of the British Empire. Season 2 was dominated by death, not only through the Great War, but with the killing off of class differences.

Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, saw his youngest daughter become a nurse and run off with a commoner – a would-be radical, to boot. Crawley, meanwhile, was denied a battlefield role and saw his estate converted into a wartime hospital, diminishing his already dwindling social status and considerable pride.

We know what's coming this season, at least history-wise, with the shredding of the last vestiges of an English feudal system in which everyone knew his or her place – and at least had a place. The social unmooring brings all kinds of loose ends for disparate characters tied by fate: Will Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley’s star-crossed love survive? Did the noble and tormented manservant Mr. Bates really kill his shrewish wife? Will the Dowager Countess and Martha Levinson kill one another?

If all that sounds soap opera-ish, well it is – albeit a soap opera with an old-school setting and a dose of modern sex appeal, thanks to attractive young cast members. “Downton Abbey” rises above the crass, not via the faux class of English accents, but buoyed by some fine acting and writing. The potent mix has made the show part of the popular culture on this side of the pond, where the Titanic never got to make a splash.

Between seasons, NBC enlisted “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes to produce “The Gilded Age,” set in 1880s New York. The success of “Abbey,” as we’ve noted, also can be seen through satire, earning a “Saturday Night Live” parody (as a Spike TV show called "Fancy Entourage"). Jimmy Fallon weighed in with “Downton Sixbey” (a play on his Studio 6B home at 30 Rock). Yahoo! produced our favorite spoof, "Downton Arby's."

There won’t be a lot of laughs among the denizens of “Downton Abbey” as the world lurches from post-war giddiness to Depression, no doubt shaking the smaller universe of Grantham anew. But we’re expecting plenty of entertainment – and some chuckles, thanks to the inspired Smith-MacLaine pairing. Check out a promo below as well a recap of the first two seasons of "Downton Abbey" as we wait – very patiently – for Sunday's two-hour season premiere:

Watch Downton Abbey, Season 3: Coming Home Preview on PBS. See more from Masterpiece.

Watch Downton Abbey: Official Seasons 1 & 2 Recap on PBS. See more from Masterpiece.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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