By Ken Tucker
Updated January 06, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST
Downton Abbey
Credit: KTV

As was made thumpingly obvious in its super-sized premiere, how much you enjoy Downton Abbey‘s third season is, more than ever for this series, predicated on just how much of an Anglophile you are. You have to be willing to go pretty thick into the weediness of British property rights and privilege, and to realize that as much as we have great affection for the Crawleys, they — like real people we love and put up with, such as family members — have their blind spots, their objectionable beliefs, their frustrating set ways. For instance, we don’t have to turn a deaf ear to anything as (to most of this family’s way of thinking) crassly complex as the struggle for Irish independence in order maintain the illusion of the Crawleys as a clan to care about. Me, I was amused as always, and was also perfectly content to feel irritation periodically mixing with my enjoyment of these toffee-nosed twits, these occasionally creepy-Crawleys.

Meanwhile, one would like (I start using “one” instead of “I” or “me” when the Anglophilia begins to engulf me)(one) to extend one’s head and heart was more regularly to the downstairs staff, their hopes, their struggles, their deviousness born of attempts to achieve one one-hundredth of what the Crawleys simply take as their due. Some, such as ex-chauffeur Tom Branson, are drawn so cartoonishly they scarcely merit such concern. Now more than ever, the leanings of creator Julian Fellowes, as well as his estimable powers of invention, are very much in full view, as he labors, his waistcoat doffed, to keep the Downton machine well-oiled and running.

The 1920s have not been kind to Hugh Bonneville’s Lord Grantham — Robert’s lordliness has extended, alas, to his investment instincts, the result being a banker telling him flatly, “Downton must go.” That is, the grand pile of rocks must be sold to pay off on the massive pile of money Robert has lost (along with “the lion’s share of Cora’s fortune”) through bad investments. (All of a sudden this season, Robert goes from being a rock as solid as one of the hallway pillars to a double-chinned Bertie Wooster who can barely cope with donning his morning jacket without losing a few thousand quid.) Robert is pulling a lot of long faces, pitying himself (another new, convenient trait for this season), moping down corridors murmuring that he doesn’t want to be known in the family history books as “the Earl who dropped the torch.” Good lord — the man cried when he told Cora the news. Bonneville and Robert: Neither actor nor character are men constructed to see crying; the damp spectacle made me a little misty myself.

Certainly the best aspect of the new season is the way the sometimes harsh new world is intruding upon sheltered lives. The burden of saving Downton, clearly the quest of the season, now falls to Matthew, who’s going to inherit a lotta dough. He’s a tad distracted by his new marriage to Mary — or as he puts it, in that outrageously non-randy way of his, “I want us to get to know each other.” But, an infuriating stickler for propriety, a man with a moral sense that would make Jesus weep, Matthew claims no interest in “profiting from Livinia’s death.” It was fun to see Mary’s frustration at Matthew’s priggish high-mindedness — Fellowes sets her up to mirror our own (contemporary, American) view of such a decision.

One should add here that, for such a long episode, the cut from the wedding plans to Mary and Matthew’s post-honeymoon period was executed with a cut jumpy and sharp enough to make Jean-Luc Godard’s neck snap.

The advance word on the arrival of Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s very American mother was being set up as a battle of the acting titans, with MacLaine squaring off against Maggie Smith. But ultimately, I thought MacLaine was ushered in and out awfully hastily, and that Fellowes’ notion of crass American manners and speech weren’t nearly as accurate or enjoyable as anything MacLaine might have improvised on the set if given half a chance. As it was, the goggle-eyed sangfroid of the Dowager Countess trumped the woozy jabber of MacLaine’s Martha Levinson handily.

Below stairs, Anna is still untying her apron to scuttle off to visit Bates in prison, the two of them compiling facts for appeal with the doggedness of The Good Wife preparing for a courtroom showdown. As for the rest of the staff, the cruelty of “mean old Mrs. O’Brien” has become almost baroque in its thick layers of menace; she’s pushing her nephew Alfred to be a new footman with grim ferocity. By contrast, Mrs. Hughes’ health scare has rendered her (and the staffer closest to her, the grumpy, decent Carson, as conservative as his master, Robert) all the more sympathetic.

Nearly all of the downstairs folk are facing serious challenges in their lives (even comic-relief Daisy is threatening to go on strike!), while the gentry up above are facing a fate no worse than moving into a slightly smaller mansion (Downton Place). In the upcoming weeks, it will be difficult to see past certain things, such as most of the Crawleys’ utter contempt for Sybil’s union with one-time chauffeur, full-time radical Tom. Yet it is the achievement of Downton Abbey to make the majority of its viewers as invested in both levels of humanity. It’s why we get sucked in all over again, even, in some subplots, against our better instincts.

Twitter: @kentucker

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Downton Abbey

The war is over, but intrigue, crisis, romance, and change still grip the beloved estate.

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