Despite a mild backlash from a minority of rather high-profile critics, hit period drama Downton Abbey returned to UK television earlier this month for a much anticipated third run. Since its September 2010 debut, the record-breaking show has captivated viewers with its lavish production and soap opera storylines that juxtapose the upstairs-downstairs relationships between a noble family and their myriad servants in early 20th century England.
Oscar-winning writer and series creator Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) has crafted a believable and historically reverent world for a twenty-strong ensemble cast who have faced the likes of the First World War, Spanish influenza, the sinking of the Titanic, and the Dowager Countess’ forked tongue with unrelenting English resistance and a rather twisted magnetism for scandal. It all adds up to a dangerously addictive concoction that has already earned the show 9 Emmys, 2 BAFTAs, a Golden Globe, and legions of fans across the globe. After just two episodes, this latest series has already become the most watched television drama in the UK this year.
So what’s new for series 3? Well not a great deal unfortunately. Just as the Grantham’s love their long-standing traditions, so it seems do the show’s creators. Explored themes in the opening two episodes include the ongoing sagas of Lady Mary’s love life, the Downton estate sucking up money that no longer exists, and the constant clash of noble tradition with the rising hemlines and exotic cocktails of a new era. Frankly it’s a little disappointing, especially considering the initial impact of the show’s high production values and recognisable cast are considerably waning at this point. Nonetheless the characters plod on in their fussy ways, endlessly eavesdropping and continually loitering around hallways in the hopes of spying someone doing something they shouldn’t be. Perhaps Fellowes chose to follow the old adage of if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. If not, the problem is likely to be of the more worrying out-of-new-ideas variety.
Nonetheless the show still carries that perplexing must-watch quality that will ensure many viewers continue to tune in. Much of this is due to the rich characters Fellowes and his talented cast have created. Hugh Bonneville’s Lord Grantham remains a dignified and likeable protagonist of which there are too few on the screen these days, meanwhile the long-awaited marriage of two much-loved players will also please fans, and the wealth of colourful characters occupying the servant’s quarters provide the writers a constant stream of potential storylines and subplots to play with.
Of course the mighty Maggie Smith is still the biggest draw of the bunch as the now-legendary Dowager Countess, yet this time around she has a new sparring partner. It’s been no secret that the incomparable Shirley MacLaine would be temporarily joining the cast as Lady Violet, Lord Grantham’s outspoken American mother-in-law. She arrives in a sensational flurry, and even finds time for a quick musical number, which will no doubt satisfy those who love her at her Broadway-best in the likes of Sweet Charity and Postcards From The Edge. As you might expect, there’s some great dialogue just waiting to be delivered with that old MacLaine magic, yet surprisingly the rivalry between these two great dames is played with unexpected subtlety. For a show not known for its subtle touch (once featuring a character recovering from full body paralysis in a matter of two episodes), it makes for a pleasant change, although part of me wants to see these two legendary actresses really go head to head, it seems almost a waste for them not to.
Numerous subplots come and go, some more successfully than others. In particular the ongoing Bates saga now feels unnecessary and out of place; when so much is happening at Downton, do we really need to be pulled away from the heart of the drama to see Bates rotting in a prison cell? Unless some great curveball is on the horizon that will affect the plot as a whole, it seems prudent to ditch this storyline in favour of something less distracting. In comparison the relationship between the youngest Grantham daughter, Lady Sybil and her former-chauffeur husband goes from strength to strength, forming the most intriguing cross-class element of any of the show’s numerous explorations of the theme.
Consequently Downton’s third outing has experienced a mixed start. All of the familiar elements that have made the show such a phenomenon are still here—the great costumes, the overbearing music, the scandalous storylines—but for a show to remain at such a peak, it must adapt over time, and that’s where Downton Abbey currently falls short. Perhaps the coming episodes will show great ingenuity and bring some freshness back with the onset of the eccentric flapper-loving 1920s, if not I strongly suspect the Downton formula may prove simply too repetitive for a fair portion of its core audience.