‘This is 1920, time to live a little.’’
Or in the case of the third season of the PBS “Masterpiece’’ drama “Downton Abbey,’’ a lot.
If there were fears that critical praise, popularity, and awards would somehow translate into the show resting on its laurels or writer/creator Sir Julian Fellowes losing the thread — as he occasionally did in season two — they are allayed by yet another engrossing cycle of the upstairs/downstairs period drama.
The above quote is uttered with supreme flair by Shirley MacLaine, who swans onto the estate as Martha Levinson, Lady Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern), wealthy mother, visiting from the United States.
As she notes to her hosts — some of whom desperately cling to the rituals of the past — change is afoot, for everyone, whether they like it or not.
Decidedly in the not camp is Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), whose disastrous investments during the war imperil the financial health of the estate at the outset of the season. This is the first domino to fall, setting off a chain of various conflicts over love and money, including one between lovebirds Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).
The season kicks off with the preparations for that long-thwarted pair’s nuptials, and is the catalyst for Martha’s visit. As expected, the formidable MacLaine going toe to toe with Maggie Smith, as the daintily venomous Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is a deliciously acidic treat.
As good as the zingers are between the grande dames, however, I remain most entertained by the tart barbs lobbed with surgical precision between Smith and Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley, Matthew’s bulldozing crusader of a mother who, this season, concerns herself with the rehabilitation of women working in the oldest profession.
Fellowes does a good job of keeping all of his players engaged while introducing fresh faces and bringing back old friends. Both groups help illustrate the excitement of the new and the instinct to find comfort in tradition, even when that tradition no longer serves a useful purpose.
In the servants’ quarters, attractive new hired hands cause a bit of a romantic roundelay: Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) gets busy living in prison while Anna (Joanne Froggatt) works to clear his name, and the conniving valet Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and the sour lady’s maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) continue their scheming ways. Is there anything more ominous than O’Brien intoning, “I’ll deal with you later’’?
Upstairs, life is moving fast and with some measure of joy for at least two of the Crawley sisters while poor Edith (the great Laura Carmichael, doing her best costume-drama Jan Brady) continues to have obstacles thrown in her path.
(If a brush-up on the first two seasons is needed, the recaps on the PBS website are both comprehensive and hilarious.)
In addition to the usual conflicts of class and wealth, season three also finds the characters grappling with several opposing forces: tradition vs. modernity, Americans vs. Brits, Anglicans vs. Catholics, expedience vs. integrity, and loyalty to one’s spouse vs. loyalty to one’s immediate family. It is by turns high-minded and lowbrow, hilarious and heartbreaking, and filled with heartfelt performances by actors who are clearly enjoying not only digging into their characters but playing off of one another.
In other words, “Downton Abbey’’ remains a soapy good time and if you laughed and cried with lords and ladies and their maids and valets for the first two seasons, that’s one tradition that is safe.