This review is based on the show's third season except the finale, which PBS did not make available in advance of its Christmas Day broadcast in the U.K., where it caused a stir with a plot involving a major character.
If season two of "Downton Abbey" was largely about the impact of the war, season three is more geared to domestic affairs, but they are no less dramatic.
Birth, death, lovers, the lovelorn, health crises, financial ruin and a business's rebirth are all featured in this new season, which more successfully fills its 91/2-hour running time than season two managed.
While some plots on "Downton Abbey" (weekly starting 9 tonight through Feb. 17, WQED-TV) may be more meaningful than others, nothing in season three rings as false a note as the Patrick-has-amnesia story in season two. Writer Julian Fellowes manages to keep the story entertaining and engrossing, in part because the characters are so well loved and by now so well established.
The early part of the season is largely focused on Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and her engagement to Matthew (Dan Stevens). Much has been made about the arrival of Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), mother of Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), who visits from America. And Martha does have some enjoyably biting exchanges with the Dowager Countess, Violet (Maggie Smith). But the character is around for just the first two hours of the new season.
The two-hour season premiere also addresses the incarceration of poor Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), Robert Crawley's valet who was convicted of killing his nasty wife, who presumably committed suicide. That story ultimately takes a backseat this season because there are so many bigger problems -- familial and financial -- faced by the denizens of Downton.
Patriarch Robert (Hugh Bonneville) learns early in the new season that some of his investments have gone belly up, and he's lost a big chunk of the money his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), provided. Mr. Fellowes wisely allows Robert to spill the beans of the financial disaster to Cora almost immediately rather than employing the hackneyed TV tradition of trying to hide a pending disaster.
"I refuse to be the failure, the earl who dropped the torch and let the flame go out," Robert says defiantly.
The new season sets up a nice story arc involving the financial future of Downton that pulls Matthew and even former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) -- now married to Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay) -- into its orbit. This plot also offers a greater explanation of the role of estates like "Downton," sometimes through the witticisms of the Dowager Countess, Violet (Maggie Smith).
"It's our job to provide employment," she says. "An aristocrat without servants is as much use to the county as a glass hammer."
Downstairs escapades include the introduction of a new footman, Alfred (Matt Milne), the nephew of bitter Mrs. O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), and later a second footman, Jimmy (Ed Speleers, "Eragon"), who catches the eye of the downstairs ladies and the mean, gay valet Thomas (Rob James-Collier).
"You know the trouble with you lot: You're all in love with the wrong people," says Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol). Truer words ...
This new season also shows more than ever a divide between the British and American perspective Robert and Cora bring to Downton Abbey ("Robert frequently makes decisions based on values that have no relevance anymore," Cora says). And religion enters the picture when Tom proposes that the child he's having with Sybil should be baptized Catholic.
"All that crossing and bobbing up and down," Robert says. "I went to Mass once in Rome; it was rather like a gymnastics display."
Three cheers for the return of "Downton," a costume drama that sets a new gold standard for the next generation of Anglophile TV viewers.
A version of this story first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Follow Rob OwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.