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TV review: Delicious drama of 'Downton' continues in season 3

Published: Sunday, Jan. 6 2013 3:00 p.m. MST

Shirley MacLaine stars as Martha Levinson in season 3 of "Downton Abbey."

Nick Briggs/nick@nickbrigg

There’s a new girl in Downton.

The runaway hit “Downton Abbey” returns to PBS with a two-hour, season 3 opening episode airing on KUED on Sunday, Jan. 6, at 8 p.m.

It’s the spring of 1920, and the Great War is over. The aristocratic Crawley family is in preparations for Matthew and Mary’s wedding, and Martha Levinson, the mother of the Earl of Grantham’s wife, Cora, is traveling from the U.S. to join in the festivities. There are eye rolls and acerbic putdowns aplenty from Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, over Martha’s arrival.

Violet, to Cora: “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: “But isn’t she American?”

Violet, firmly: “Exactly.”

Played with great relish by Shirley MacLaine, Martha is a wonderful sparring partner for the charmingly haughty Lady Violet, the sublime Maggie Smith.

It’s too irresistible to not include a savory bon mot exchange between the two formidable women:

Martha, sizing up Violet: “Oh, dear. The war has made old women of us both.”

Violet, looking at Martha’s face: “Oh, no. I stay out of the sun.”

The verbal jousting is just one of the entertaining elements of the utterly captivating drama. And we anticipate more wonderfully catty interactions when Matthew’s mother, Isobel, makes her own presence known.

With just the right amount of exposition, catching-up and scene-setting, the "Downton" opening episode bodes well for the season. Like season 2, “Downton” will be composed of eight installments in addition to a Christmas episode.

There will be tremendous change at Downton, with Martha representing the modern way of the world and demonstrating how closely the Crawleys cling to tradition.

With Martha, another new face is Alfred Nugent, Downton’s new footman, the awkward, tall nephew of lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien. While most of this episode focuses on the Crawleys, along with married couple Sybil and Tom Branson, there is a brief visit to the jailed Mr. Bates by Anna, who continues to try to prove his innocence. Not to be forgotten is the spiteful underbutler Thomas, and it appears he will play a larger role in this season. And there are also the wicked antics of O'Brien.

There was a drop in quality in season 2, but viewers remained steadfastly loyal. Julian Fellowes, the creator and lone writer, has developed vivid and beloved characters. The sophomore episodes suffered as “Downton” became a bit too soapy with implausible plotting. But it appears Fellowes returns to his strength as a storyteller. Regardless, we'll all be watching.

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