Watching a TV drama series at the peak of its powers is a wonderful thing. Gone are any growing pains, fatigue has yet to set in and everything feels artful and confident. Such is the way with Downton Abbey, which currently has the thrill of a beautifully choreographed fireworks display.
Throughout the opening instalment to series three, rockets are set off at roughly twenty-minute intervals, with each required to be more spectacular than the last. First there’s the return of Lady Sybil and Branson (ooh! Class boundaries transgressed), which is followed by the much-anticipated debut of Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s American mother (Aah! Spiky putdowns directed at Dame Maggie).
But impressive as her arrival is, it must ultimately make way for the episode’s crescendo – the prospect of a society wedding between Lady Mary and Matthew: “I feel my chest will explode,” says proud father Lord Grantham, worrying us for a second that he’s about to get an attack of the John Hurts in Alien.
Watching all this play out, it’s hard to not come away marvelling at how sure-footed writer Julian Fellowes can be. The whole enterprise remains an immaculately presented soap opera, but these are top-of-the-range suds from a man who understands the medium well.
He is, of course, a die-hard Coronation Street fan so he knows exactly what he’s doing when, for instance, he pits two indomitable women like MacLaine and Smith against each other. It helps as well that both actresses can point to a back catalogue of verbal sparring – the former having taken on Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment, the latter having seen off Bette Davis in Death on the Nile and Diana Rigg in Evil under the Sun.
And indeed the antagonism between the Dowager and MacLaine’s character Martha Levinson sums up what appears to be the theme of this third series: namely the battle between tradition and progress. There’s the Dowager looking back to the halcyon pre-war days and now along comes an American with her eyes set on what lies ahead. Throw in some money troubles for Lord Grantham that put Downton on a financial downturn and you can see how the old guard are being forced to face up to imminent social upheaval.
The tighter focus on how the political affects the personal should please those who felt that the series had become baggy and ill-disciplined during its sophomore run. This is a drama set to roar into the Twenties looking sleek and assured – the Dowager may not be in agreement, but change can be a very good thing indeed.