WASHINGTON — "Downton Abbey," that phenomenally successful British drama series about a very specific sort of people enduring what amounts to the modern era's original first-world problems, is back on PBS's "Masterpiece Classic" Sunday night for a third season. It is greeted with huzzahs, which are deserved, but it is also met with the law of diminishing returns.
Only a fool could overlook the sinkholes in last season's plots: Along with characters miraculously leaping out of wheelchairs and/or breaking into song, an unwanted fiancee conveniently dropped dead of Spanish flu as "Downton Abbey" verged on soapy self-satire. Creator/writer Julian Fellowes seemed to making it up on the fly, as tragic plot twists were hinted at, fretted over and then strangely vanished. A wounded man, comically covered in mummy bandages, arrived at Downton's makeshift World War I hospice claiming to be the Crawley estate's rightful heir — and then what happened?
Nothing. A whole lot of nothing. It was disheartening to see "Downton Abbey," which so effortlessly charmed us in the first season, fall so flat in the second. Some fans still will not concede this. "I just like watching it," they whine in defense. "I watch it for the costumes, the domestic details, the dowager countess — all of it."
Well, who doesn't? I, too, would probably watch "Downton Abbey" even if it were only about serving dinner each night. (And, mostly, that's what it is. Would it work just as well as a cooking show on the Food Network?)
The good news is that we can all take a measure of comfort in this latest effort. "Downton Abbey" comes back stronger and more muscular this time, with intriguing and shocking new plots that provide a bit of vital momentum and an uncharacteristically wrenching dose of tragedy when two major characters die — which I shan't spoil any further, though goodness knows the Internet already has, once Season 3 began airing in Britain a few months ago and just concluded with a Christmas story that contains a dark development.