Warning: There are spoilers below for a show that won't officially air in the U.S. until next year.
Downton Abbey finally has its swag back. The beloved British middle-brow soap rebounded from its ridiculous second season (or, as the Brits call it, series) in its Season 3 premiere, which aired last night on Britain's ITV. When we last saw the Crawleys, it seemed that much of their show's tension had disintegrated with Mary and Matthew at last becoming engaged, Bates being granted a reprieve (his death sentence for being wrongfully accused of murdering his cartoonishly sinister ex-wife was reduced to a life sentence) and the supernatural once again poking its ghostly butt into where it never belonged via Matthew's deceased ex-fiance's Ouija board communication (this came after a midseason suggestion of a psychic connection between Mary and Matthew). That Christmas episode was bloated and overlong, and the show's signature style of edited wit (several brief, punchy scenes stitched together frenetically) felt more like a bludgeoning with plot points so obvious they barely merited a single repetition let alone a half dozen (we got it: Mary really hated her former finance Sir Richard Carlisle, Daisy gets no respect and Edith is a desperate hag pining for a guy who had to tell her that he's too old for her).
This new round of upstairs/downstairs drama and light laughter was looking bleak, but it is newly energized thanks to developing complications. Foremost is the financial threat facing the Crawleys: they could be on their way to losing their cherished mansion. Fearing forthcoming hard times, patriarch Robert invested a large chunk of Cora's fortune into the Canadian railroad, but the money evaporated. This coincides nicely with Sybil's homecoming alongside her former husband Tom, the former family chauffeur who is looked down upon by most of the Crawleys. Robert is particularly harsh, and his contempt seems to come from seeing his potential future in his lower class son-in-law. Will Robert one day know what being poor feels like and when he does, will he and his family of snobs finally be getting what they deserve?
Meanwhile, Anna is playing Scooby Doo with Bates' case, inventing schemes and searching for clues that may finally exonerate him. So far so good, but it seems like it could devolve into silliness, which is typical for a show that doesn't fear melodrama despite its comfortable, easy tone. In its polite, period and deceptive way, Downton Abbey believes in entertainment by any means necessary. It doesn't always work (see the Ouija board), but it's always trying.
A huge part of the show's value system is the belief that old ladies are the most fun ladies of all. For at least a few episodes, Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess Violet will have an opponent far more formidable than Matthew's dull-tongued, laughing-gassy mother Isobel. Shirley MacClaine plays Martha Levinson, Cora's mother, who's blunt and immediately wants to know why a stranger is inheriting her husband's money. The clip above gives you a sense of the feistiness Olympics, but the best of Violet's lines actually occurs before Martha arrives. She tells Cora at dinner, "I'm so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I'm with her, I'm reminded of the virtues of the English." Matthew asks, "But isn't she American?" Violet answers, "Exactly."
That I'm relaying this at all means that I've gone ahead and downloaded Downton Abbey, as many of its enthusiasts who can't bear to wait out the archaic delay between British and U.S. broadcasts do (it's scheduled to air on PBS in the U.S. in January). That this delay continues is absurd. The U.K. and U.S. Downton networks are at this point practically courting piracy (the BBC America blog posted last week about the download "dilemma"). When the second season debuted on PBS in the U.S. earlier this year, after it had already run in the U.K. in its entirety, Salon interviewed Masterpiece Theater exec producer Rebecca Eaton on this issue:
"We are completely separate networks, and we program differently than ITV," she explains. "It's literally the difference between the way one network broadcasts and the way the other one does."
When I press Eaton to elaborate on what might be holding them back from making the episodes available more quickly, she is quick to say, "ITV is a commercial station, they have ads, and their shows have to be reformatted to fit the Masterpiece time slots." The reformatting includes editing for length and adding PBS branding. "And Masterpiece, every year, has to avoid certain weeks because of pledge," she adds. "It's a puzzle of where to fit programs in here." Her advice to fans here in the States: embrace the concept of delayed gratification.
That's not likely, though, in a media climate that moves as fast as ours. What does "delayed gratification" even mean when a five-second web-page loading hiccup can infuriate? Part of Downton Abbey's appeal is the way it routinely winks at us from the past with contrasts to our contemporary culture. Being behind the times may be fitting in the case of scheduling, but that doesn't make it less frustrating. I mean, are you really going to wait three months to watch a show with the line, "I have no time for training young hobbledy hoys," and that features Shirley MacLaine singing "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," as she does in the preview for next week's episode? If you feel that bad about stealing it (and Hugh Bonneville, who plays Robert, says you should be ashamed), pledge some cash to PBS and watch it all over again when it airs. Pretend like you never did the thing that Masterpiece is forcing you to do.