TERRY GROSS, HOST:
On Sunday, the PBS anthology series "Masterpiece Classic" begins season three of "Downton Abbey," the British period drama that has taken England and America by storm. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Downton Abbey," the drama series about the residents and servants at a grand estate in early 20th century England, has done for PBS what the commercial broadcast networks couldn't achieve last year. It generated a hit show, one whose audience increased over its run and left its fans hungry for more.
And that's a lot of hunger, because when season two was televised here in the States on PBS, it averaged seven million viewers, more than most TV shows on any network, cable or broadcast. In fact, it's the largest audience in the history of "Masterpiece," a PBS franchise that goes back more than 40 years.
And the secret to the success of "Downton Abbey" can be found in the early history of "Masterpiece Theater." In 1974, "Masterpiece Theater" imported the first installment of "Upstairs, Downstairs," which caught on in America just as "Downton" has now and with a very similar story.
That miniseries showed life in a proper upper class British household from the points of both the ruling class - the upstairs - and the servant class - the downstairs. Back then, in an era before video cassette recorders, fans held "Upstairs, Downstairs" viewing parties and waited impatiently for each installment.
With "Downton" fans in the U.S. either caught on PBS or gobbled it up afterward on DVD or downloaded it. But the effect is the same and so is the quality. Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of "Downton Abbey," has done a great job making a very compelling period soap opera. Season three, which starts Sunday, is his best work yet.
The first two seasons spent a lot of time dealing with world events outside the household, from the sinking of the Titanic to World War I. Season three, set at the start of the 1920s, focuses almost exclusively on events within the Downton estate itself. And as far as plots and intrigue go, that's plenty.
As the season begins, one storyline concerns the post-war economy and how Robert Crawley, who owns the estate, may have to sell it. Out of desperation, Cora, his American wife, sends for her wealthy mother to visit in hopes that the Crawley women can persuade her to finance their lavish lifestyle.
The mother, Martha, is played by new cast member Shirley MacLaine, who's excellent. She doesn't steal the show - she can't. Not with Maggie Smith already dominating every scene she's in as Cora's mother-in-law, the acerbic, sarcastic dowager countess. But MacLaine fits in perfectly. Here's a scene in which the dowager countess comments about Cora's brother when what she really wants to do is charm Martha into sharing her fortune. But for the dowager countess, charm doesn't come easily.
During this conversation you'll also hear Elizabeth McGovern as Cora and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, one of the three Crawley daughters.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")
MAGGIE SMITH: (as Violet Crawley) It always seems so strange to me that Cora has a brother.
SHIRLEY MACLAINE: (as Martha) Why?
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: (as Cora) You don't know how things work here, Mother. If there's a boy the daughters don't get anything.
SMITH: (as Violet Crawley) There's no such thing as an English heiress with a brother. Why do we never see him?
MACLAINE: (as Martha) Oh, Harold hates to leave America.
SMITH: (as Violet Crawley) Curious. He hates to leave America. I should hate to go there.
MICHELLE DOCKERY: (as Lady Mary) You don't mean that, Granny, when we're both so drawn to America.
SMITH: (as Violet Crawley) Indeed. Indeed we are, never more than now when the bond between the Crawleys and the Levinsons are so strong.
MCGOVERN: (as Martha) That's nice. If you mean it, Mama.
SMITH: (as Violet Crawley) I do. It is marvelous the way our families support each other.
MACLAINE: (as Martha) You mean you needed the Levinson cash to keep the Crawleys on top.
DOCKERY: (as Lady Mary) I'm not sure we'd put it that way.
SMITH: (as Violet Crawley) I'm quite sure we would not.
DOCKERY: (as Lady Mary) But I hope you do feel that Mama's fortune has been well spent in shoring up an ancient family.
MACLAINE: (as Martha) Huh. Nah, you gotta spend it on something.
BIANCULLI: That scene, like most scenes in "Downton Abbey" has two layers. There's the veneer of the social graces, the ritualistic politeness of it all. And beneath that shiny surface there's what's really going on - the desperation, the intrigue, the jealousies and obsessions and secrets. Every character in "Downton Abbey" from the lowliest cooks maid to the earl of the estate, is a delight to spend time with.
And even the occasional exterior shots of the estate itself are breathtakingly beautiful, whether shown in bright sunlight, moody moonlight, or misty rain. The building is so gorgeous, inside and out, it's understandable why those who live and work there want to cling to it, whatever their station. And for "Downton Abbey," the TV series, the station in America is PBS.
While American cable TV gives us the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo as royalty, "Masterpiece Classic" has generated a hit by treating us to a touch of class and to Shirley MacLaine, as Martha, leading her stuffy British in-laws in an impromptu sing-along.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as Crawley family) (singing) Let me call you sweetheart. I'm in love with you. Let me hear you whisper that you love me too. Keep the love light glowing in your eyes so true...
MACLAINE: (as Martha) (singing) Let me call you sweetheart. I'm in love with you.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history and Rowan University.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.