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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 with an audience that increased over its run and left fans hungry for more. And that's a lot of hunger because when the second season was televised here in the states, it averaged 7 million viewers, more than most TV shows on any network, cable or broadcast. In fact, it has 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 Theatre.
In 1974, Masterpiece Theatre imported the first installment of Upstairs, Downstairs, which caught on in America just as Downton has now — and with a very similar story. The miniseries showed life, in a proper upper-class British household, from the points of view of both the ruling class — the upstairs — and the servant class — the downstairs. Back then, in an era before videocassette recorders, fans held Upstairs, Downstairs viewing parties, and waited impatiently for each installment. With Downton, fans in the U.S. either caught it 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. The third season, 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 3, 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 story line concerns the postwar 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.
In one scene, the Dowager Countess comments about Cora's brother, when what she really wants to do is charm Martha into sharing her fortune. It's one of many scenes in Downton Abbey that 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 cook's maid to the earl of the estate, is a delight to spend time with. 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.