'Downton Abbey' review: Lady Oscar faceoff

Dan Stevens stars as Matthew Crawley and Michelle Dan Stevens stars as Matthew Crawley and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary in "Downton Abbey," on PBS Photo Credit: ITV Photo

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REVIEW

THE SHOW: "Downton Abbey"

WHEN | WHERE: Third-season premiere Sunday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13; also Monday at 8 p.m. on WLIW/21

CATCHING UP: As darkness falls and snow swirls, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) pledges his love to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), and she to him. They are, finally, to be married, which aborts her plan to escape to America, and to escape scandal. Newspaper baron Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen), to whom she had been betrothed, had promised to keep her scandal (she once slept with the Turkish diplomat who died . . . remember?) out of the papers. But no longer.

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham and lord of the manor (Hugh Bonneville) isn't much concerned with the scandal about to hit the broadsheets because his beloved valet, John Bates (Brendan Coyle), had a death sentence for the alleged murder of his wife commuted to life behind bars; Bates lives and (maybe) will be vindicated, most likely by the efforts of his new wife, Anna May Bates (Joanne Froggatt), head housemaid at Downton.

As the third season begins -- spring 1920 -- the past is the past, and the future beckons. The '20s aren't roaring here just yet, but there is a marriage -- almost a merger, really -- to prepare for, along with the arrival from the States of one Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), the American-born mother of Robert's wife, Cora Crawley, countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern). Robert's own mother, Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) says of her in-law, "When I see her, I'm reminded of the virtues of the English. . . ."

MY SAY: Let's talk Shirley MacLaine, because it's not every day or night you come across a pair of Oscar-winning actresses -- Smith is actually a two-time winner -- sharing the small screen, even when that screen frames one of TV's most celebrated series. As you might expect, she's terrific here, as the addled and somewhat sharp-elbowed mother-in-law with a scathing disdain of all that is British, though -- surprise -- not so much a disdain of the dowager countess of Grantham. Violet is a human calculator who measures people -- mostly Americans -- in terms of their net worth, and knows that Martha could have some monetary value down the road, so she holds her acid observations mostly to herself.

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For her part, Martha sees something in Violet she likes -- maybe a cross-Atlantic reflection of herself. Levinson seems pretty much ripped from the pages of some Henry James or Edith Wharton novel: That crass "new" American who comes to England to get a taste of what real class is, but who, nonetheless, scorns the aristocracy for their quaint attachment to the past. "History and tradition took Britain into the world war," she scolds one of the manor-born. "Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand." MacLaine's Levinson is a little like MacLaine's Coco Chanel from the 2008 Lifetime biopic: She has a hat for every occasion -- usually a wild, colorful, feathery appendage that looks as though a pair of ostriches were sacrificed for it -- and a barb as well. She's gimlet-eyed and tough, and knows exactly what her hosts will be doing before long: Holding out their hands.

BOTTOM LINE: Fans will be pleased, though they shouldn't be too surprised by the major plot development Sunday -- it's obvious by half.

GRADE: B+

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