Here’s an easy Downton Abbey drinking game: take a sip every time a member of the Crawley family observes that times are changing.
I tease, but with affection. This excellent British historical drama, which returns to Masterpiece on PBS for a third season January 6, is the rare show that knows exactly what it’s about: adjustment. It bears down on this theme in every scene, and in dialogue that makes Mad Men’s clunkier self-aware lines seem subtle; second for second, it’s the most relentlessly on-message drama in recent TV history. “It’s so strange to think of the English embracing change!” a character declares in the third season’s premiere, which is set in the aftermath of World War I and suffused by fears that the Crawley fortune has been squandered on a bad railroad investment. But as Violet the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) observed in season two, “The aristocracy has not survived by its intransigence.”
The key word is survived. On some level, every line in Downton Abbey is about accepting hard reality and adapting accordingly, to bend without breaking. These lessons apply to the show’s working stiffs as well as to its royals: The maid-in-training who studies typing to escape the drudgery of domestic service, the aristocrat’s daughters drawn to social protest, and the footmen, valets, and assistant cooks seeking promotions are all trying to make their lives better as history’s ground shifts beneath them. Created by Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Robert Altman’s 2001 upstairs-downstairs mystery Gosford Park, Downton Abbey is set in a world of immense wealth, flowchart family trees, and rigid codes of conduct, all of which are suddenly at risk. The series has been dismissed by some as an overproduced nighttime soap for Anglophiles, an impression unfortunately confirmed in its goofy second season. But for all its missteps last year, Downton is still a pantheon-great series, filled with memorable moments; season three confirms that it is also, in its no-fuss, stiff-upper-lip way, a significant program, one that is as much about contemporary, multicultural, postmillennial Western civilization as it is about lily-white, class-bound England.
If you want to play that drinking game, you’d better stock up, because in season three, the times are changing faster than ever. In the premiere, butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) describes an “indoor picnic” party, with guests wandering the house instead of sitting at a candlelit table, as “the chaos of Gomorrah,” and his stricken face tells you he’s not joking. World War I shook up the established order; the barbarians have climbed the gates, and now they’re in the house eating off saucers. It’s only a matter of time before all women have the vote and lords think nothing of attending estate dinners in tuxedos, garments considered semi-casual in the twenties. (When the Crawley men don tuxes in episode two, Violet says she almost mistook her son for a waiter.) Every conflict between characters and their institutions, beliefs, or traditions always comes back to the same basic question: Should we continue doing things as always and hope for the best, or should we be pragmatic and change as much as we’re able?
Season three’s subplots focus on social pariahs: unwed mothers, prostitutes, Catholics, the Irish. Young women of means are uncharacteristically willing to consider marrying old, even sick men, because the war killed off so many of the young healthy ones. Housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) suffers a health scare. Former footman Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) frets that he’s being pushed out and starts plotting again. Head housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) pines for monolithically decent Bates (Brendan Coyle), imprisoned for allegedly killing his scheming wife, visiting him in jail and working to prove his innocence. (You still believe in Bates-as-saint, but the character’s comfort with behind-bars violence makes you wonder.)
Upstairs, the family’s future seems cloudy at best. “I refuse to be the failure, the earl who dropped the torch and let the flame go out,” says Robert (Hugh Bonneville), fretting over the family’s cash crisis. Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), who was paralyzed in the war but miraculously recovered, is in line for an inheritance that could save the family’s estate, but he won’t accept the money because he’s still wracked with guilt over kissing Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) in front of his late fiancée, Lavinia (Zoe Boyle). Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) married the family’s ex-chauffeur, Irishman Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and relocated to Dublin, but she returns with her husband in the dead of night after he gets involved in political violence against the ruling English. Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) pursues the much older Sir Anthony Strallan (Robert Bathurst), but he pushes Edith away because he thinks the vast age gap and his wounded arm make him a bad match for her; she redirects her thwarted romantic impulse into a fledgling career as a newspaper columnist.
There’s also a major new character, Martha Levinson (the indomitable Shirley MacLaine), mother of Countess Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), who shows up at Downton. Violet can barely conceal her disgust at Martha’s freewheeling, plainspoken Americanness. Although they’re saddled with clunky scenes that lean too hard on English versus American clichés, MacLaine and Smith’s interaction is mostly delightful. They’re the King Kong and Godzilla of sarcastic grandmas, and a scene in which Martha tries to bond with Violet as a fellow widow humanizes them both: Martha describes their husbands as having been “taken” from them, and Violet replies, “Lord Grantham wasn’t taken from me. He died.” The women share one important quality: the ability to take the long view and to urge their descendants to make difficult but correct choices.
The show’s tough-love attitude may explain why it’s such a hit in the States despite peddling a distinctly English brand of cheese. Like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and other period shows, Downton Abbey is a drama about individuals borne along by history’s currents, but it differs in that it’s uninterested in anti-heroes and moral relativism. Most characters are good, and the ones who wreak havoc tend to be misguided, or in thrall to ossified codes, rather than sociopathic or flat-out evil. Tension and catharsis come out of conflicting values rather than purposeful malevolence. The show ultimately has sympathy for everyone onscreen. Even its “villains” inspire more pity than rage.
The melodrama is deliciously engrossing and occasionally wrenching — two episodes in the middle of season three may empty local Rite-Aids of Kleenex — but in the end, it’s a light series: “light” as in the opposite of dark, not insubstantial; warm, hopeful, inspiring. The Titanic claims two Crawley heirs: The family adapts. The war wipes out a generation of men: England adapts. The aristocracy loses wealth, power, and social influence: The lords and ladies adapt. Service workers lose jobs owing to budget cuts, workplace politics, or bad personal choices: They all adapt and move forward.
Through modern eyes, the Crawleys seem as alien as pharaohs, and the lower-class characters’ loyalty to their estate self-loathing and fatalistic. Yet it’s easy to translate the show’s milieu into workaday modern American terms, because everyone, regardless of social station, has been backed into a corner and had to fight or flee to escape. In the course of a season, fortunes, social classes, nations, and whole ways of life are threatened, only to endure through compromise and sacrifice. Codes of honor become nooses for characters who won’t listen to reason. If you’ve watched even one episode of Downton, you understand the show’s pragmatic worldview and have a good idea of how events will ultimately break: in favor of whatever solution lets the family and its servants continue to live as they did — or barring that, to live, period. Downton Abbey’s visuals wallow in luxury, but in its heart, it’s about the essentials.
*This article originally appeared in the December 31, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.