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January 7, 2013 at 12:30 PM

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'Downton Abbey' returns with an American twist


I managed to resist PBS's "Downton Abbey" for two years.

That all changed after I received a Christmas gift in the mail from my friends: the first two seasons of the Masterpiece Theater series on DVD. I gobbled up every episode in roughly two days. It's that addictive.

Season 3's premiere on Sunday served up two glorious hours of British intrigue — with an American twist.

Watch the preview below. Go here for the full episode.

It's hard to pick a favorite character or plot line on this show. I give a lot of credit to the show's creator, Julian Fellowes for writing a magnificent script. The actors deserve equal praise for making those lines so memorable.

"Downton Abbey" strikes a chord with viewers like me because I'm fascinated with history, class struggles, and (yes!) heart-melting romance. This season, it seems half of Downton's inhabitants long for a return to the formal ways of high society in pre-war Great Britain. The other half embraces a more pragmatic view of life and the new possibilities before them.

Forty-three minutes into the show, actress Shirley MacLaine makes her grand entrance as Martha Levinson, the wealthy American mother of the countess of Grantham. She has gobs of money and a tart tongue. ("You mean you needed the Levinson cash to keep the Crawleys on top.") To her, Downton Abbey's majestic traditions are boring and old-fashioned.

"These houses were built for another age," she says to Lady Mary, after telling her she cannot help the family through it's latest financial woes. "Are you quite sure you want to continue with the bother of it all?"

Sure, Mrs. Levinson's character feeds British stereotypes about Americans. But it doesn't make her performance any less delightful to watch.

At the end of the episode, Mrs. Levinson sits down for a nightcap with her son-in-law. Her presence serves as a constant reminder to the Crawleys — and to the viewers — that the world is changing.

Martha Levinson: "You know the way you deal with the world today is not to ignore it. If you do, you'll just get hurt."

Robert, Earl of Grantham: "Sometimes, I feel like a creature in the wild whose natural habitat is gradually being destroyed."

Martha Levinson: "Some animals adapt to new surroundings. Seems a better choice than extinction."

Robert, Earl of Grantham: "I don't think it is a choice. I think it's what's in you."

Martha Levinson: "Let's hope what's in you will carry you through these times and into a safer shore."

What makes this exchange so powerful? Mrs. Levinson's far-sighted wisdom is timeless and translates so well on-screen. Her optimism is an American trait that still resonates today, whether we're talking about the state of journalism or the Great Recession.

A few of my other favorite lines:

  • "You've still kept me here with a dishonest representation," says Daisy, the disgruntled kitchen assistant. An exasperated (and wiser) Mrs. Patmore's responds in classic fashion: "Oh dear! Have you swallowed a dictionary?"

  • The lady's maid, O'Brien, turns against Thomas, her former ally in the servants' quarters, after he sabotages her nephew. After Thomas confronts her, she tells him, "Stop warning me and go lay out his lordship's pajamas." Rerrr!

  • During a disastrous dinner party in which Lord Grantham and Matthew Crawley are not properly dressed in white formal wear — (gasp!) they're wearing black ties instead — the Dowager Countess Violet does not hide her dismay. "I'm so sorry. I thought you were a waiter," she cracks as she walks past her son.

Oh, "Downton." It's good to have you back on Sunday nights.

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