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Posted at 06:37 PM ET, 07/21/2012

‘Downton Abbey’ third season: Crawley family goes bust


Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess, left, and Hugh Boneville as Lord Grantham are shown in a scene from the second season on "Downton Abbey.” (Nick Briggs - AP)
TV critics attending Summer TV Press Tour 2012 were treated to a sneak peek at season three of “Downton Abbey,” in which they saw verbal mud-slinging between Maggie Smith and new cast member Shirley MacLaine — but did you expect otherwise?

“When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English,” purrs Maggie Smith, as Violet, the dowager countess, of MacLaine’s character, who is the rich mother of Lord Grantham’s rich wife, played by Elizabeth McGovern.

“But isn’t she American?” asks Matthew.

“Exactly,” coos Violet.

Da dum dum!

Maybe more titillating: the obscenely wealthy Crawley family has lost its fortune!

“Has some of my fortune also been lost?” asks Lord Grantham’s rich American wife Cora, a.k.a. McGovern.

“Almost all,” weeps Lord Grantham, a.k.a. Robert Crawley, played by Hugh Bonneville.

Oh well, says Cora — or words to that effect — Let’s make sure this upcoming family wedding is a humdinger and one last bash they’ll remember.

They hug.

But wait! Engaged couple Matthew and Mary ( Dan Stevens and Michelle Dockery) are seen — fighting!

Among the many other juicy storylines waiting to be pushed along next season: the fate of John Bates, Lord Grantham’s valet, convicted last season of bumping off his wife. Duing the Press Tour Q&A, Bonneveille took off his tie, jumped out of his seat, stripped off his suit jacket and dress shirt, and revealed a “Free Bates” T-shirt.

“T-shirts are available in the foyer,” deadpanned Brendan Coyle, who plays Bates. Critics were disappointed to find out that was not true, and just another case of dry Brit wit.

PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” which snagged 16 Emmy nominations on Thursday, including one for best drama series, is so very popular because while “it looks like a classical period TV drama from the ‘70s, and everyone’s in bustles and ringing for lunch,” it’s written more along the lines of “The West Wing” and “ER” creator Julian Fellowes told TV critics attending the tour.

By that he explained he meant, “with lots of plots going on – big plots, little plots, funny plots, sad plots — so it’s all sort of plotted together.Seems to be right for the energy of now. Seems to meet what the audience wants.”

Or, as MacLaine, newest star in the “Downton” firmament, put it, “what [Fellowes] has done so brilliantly is make 15 characters of combinations with just the right amount of time on screen, which fits the Internet tolerance for emotional knowledge.”

MacLaine said she figured this out while traveling to Thailand and Cambodia and “part of the southeastern areas of the world” where the show is also popular, and realizing “all these people are on the Internet and they’re used to an overabundance of information and how much they want to process.”

MacLaine said she had not watched the show when she was approached about joining the cast, but her “hairdresser lady in Malibu” had, and filled her in, telling Maclaine of her character, “Oh, she’s Jewish and she’s from Long Island and she has a lot of money and she’s looking for a tight old man.”

Joining “Downton” was not MacLaine’s first meeting with Maggie Smith, as some have suggested.

“We were lovers in another life,” joked MacLaine, who is well known and often mocked, for her belief in re-incarnation.

Actually, she said, Smith told her they’d had met 40 years earlier, backstage at the Academy Awards, next to the catering table. MacLaine was up for an Oscar, and lost. According to MacLaine, Smith recently told her, “You know what you did, dear? You tucked right into that chocolate cake and said ‘[Have sex] it. I don’t care if I’m thin ever again!’”

Smith was not at the press tour to defend herself.

Fellowes, meawhile, took umbrage when someone once again brought up the subject of period mistakes people have claimed were made on “Downton” — particularly mistakes of language.

“Well, the interesting thing about this is that when these people complain, the newspapers always assume that the complainant is correct and the show is wrong,” Fellowes said.

In fact, Fellowes assured the “newspapers” in the ballroom, in “more or less every single case the complainant was incorrect.” He did not define “more or less every single case.”

“I was reading a Trollope novel once, and in it the heroine said….’Oh, tell that to the Marines.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that must be completely out of period. That’s a Second World War phrase’,” Fellowes continued, warming up to his theme. “Well, the book was published in 1867.”

As a long-time fan of the novels of Anthony Trollope, this seems to need checking out.

Anyway, getting back to Fellowes:

Colloquial language is much older than a lot of people think…I’m not saying that we’ve never made a mistake – I’m sure we have,” Fellowes added, graciously/patronizingly.

But, he insisted this “constant surprising of the audience,” language-wise, was deliberate and is intended to make us all realize “that these people are much more like us, are much more normal, and there isn’t a sort of place called Period, where these strange people life in funny clothes.”

By  |  06:37 PM ET, 07/21/2012

Tags:  downton abbey, pbs

 
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