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Downton Abbey: Season 3 - First episode reviewed

Downton Abbey, Season 3

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

NATION’S favourite Downton Abbey returned for a third series on Sunday night (September 16, 2012) but while the drama remained as entertaining as ever the quality of its first season has long since passed.

As with the show’s hit-and-miss second season, this curtain raiser often felt as contrived as it did downright cheesy with all the very best lines reserved for Dame Maggie Smith.

Now entering the 1920s, and taking place in the run-up to the wedding of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Stevens), Julian Fellowes’ script wasted no time in raising the stakes and laying the groundwork for the struggles that will surely follow.

Primary among them is the impending threat to the future of Downton caused by Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville)‘s financial failures which, as luck would have it, took place almost simultaneously with the revelation that Matthew may be about to inherit a massive fortune.

Not that Matthew intends to donate his potential fortune just yet… thereby allowing for the almost inevitable pre-wedding hiccup between himself and Mary on the eve of their big day.

That difference of opinion did, however, pave the way for the episode’s big saccharine moment as, mindful of cursing their luck, Matthew and Mary indulged in a make-up kiss with their eyes closed that felt mawkish to say the least. And how did their lips magically find each other straight away?

Elsewhere, there was the return of Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Branson, or should we correct ourselves to say Tom (Allen Leech), to stir up family tensions, as well as the big arrival of Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Levinson to ruffle Violet’s feathers.

To be fair, Leech’s ex-chauffeur provided several of the episode’s best moments by virtue of his bonding with Matthew and his ability to stand up to the likes of Robert Crawley and slowly earn his respect.

But MacLaine, thus far, is all style and no substance. Arriving on the hour mark, she delivered her spiky lines with relish, firing off one put down after another, but has yet to offer any real depth. Perhaps her best is yet to come, especially as she’s clearly enjoying her time opposite Dame Maggie.

There was, of course, plenty more intrigue to take in. The long-suffering Bates (Brendan Coyle) continues to, well, suffer in prison while doing his best to deter new wife Anna (the ever excellent Joanne Froggatt) from spending too much time clearing his name; Thomas (Rob James-Collier) continues to provide the sneering villain, eternally acting in his own best interests, and Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) continues to court the attention of Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst) in the hope of also finding a path down the aisle.

It’s all highly entertaining stuff, set against the backdrop of impending social change and complete with a financial storyline that’s been impeccably timed to resonate with current economic concerns.

But where that highly acclaimed first season dazzled by virtue of its favourable comparisons to the high brow likes of Fellowes’ own Oscar-winning Gosford Park, this third season now feels like a high class soap opera… a Sunday night crowd-pleaser, for sure, but now much more of a simple guilty pleasure.