(Nick Briggs/AP) Shirley MacLaine in the first episode of “Downton Abbey’s” third season.

Like Masterpiece Theatre presenter Laura Linney, we were maybe a little overexcited about the return of Lady Mary and the dowager countess of Grantham at our house, where the first words out of my 16-year-old daughter on Sunday morning were, “What time is ‘Downton’ on?”

Twelve hours later, all that anticipation had taken some of the edge off of the Season 3 opener of “Downton Abbey,” the PBS hit about dressing for dinner. But the distracting appearance of a cartoon American — Shirley MacLaine playing Lady Grantham’s gauche, rich American mum — didn’t help, either.

Too lively by half, her Martha Levinson never really came alive, or for a second let us forget, “Oh, there’s Shirley MacLaine not only chewing the scenery but eating like she’s never before seen food, and talking with her mouth full.” (And is it anti-Semitic to give such a broadly drawn vulgarian the name Levinson?)

She and her British counterpart, Maggie Smith, who plays the droll dowager countess, squabbled on and on over the point of tradition, while all along we knew she’d refuse to bail out Cora’s kindhearted but dull-witted husband, Robert, who’d somehow managed to invest every dime of her inheritance in a railroad to nowhere. 

(PBS) No clue-phone for Hugh Bonneville’s Robert Crawley, who seriously misjudges servants and stocks, and tries to discourage his lonely daughter Edith’s one perfectly suitable suitor.

“I’m American; have gun will travel,” said the tranquil and possibly tranquilized Cora, unfazed even by news that her dough was gone and Downton Abbey about to be downsized.

We’ve the rest of the season, of course, to see how that fate is avoided.

But meanwhile, the emotional center of the show has shifted downstairs, where the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, is keeping her own counsel about the lump in her breast, and head butler Mr. Carson, far less clueless than the lord he serves, senses that something is wrong. “I am on your side,” he tells her, apropos of nothing, while upstairs, on the eve of their long-awaited, much-hoped for wedding, Lady Mary accuses Matthew of not being on her family’s side. (Yes, as Mrs. Hughes has noted, that Mary is one “uppity minx.”)

There’s more character development going on downstairs, too; for the first time we see the violent side of the until-now-presumed-innocent John Bates, and wonder whether that nice maid Anna, who married him on the eve of his murder trial, might also have been had. 

Carson beams like a proud second papa as Lady Mary finally floats down the aisle towards her true love and distant cousin. But this isn’t Jane Austen 100 years on, so the story doesn’t end at the altar.

Thanks to the Associated Press, I know how the season ends, but will show up on time every Sunday to see 1920 unfold — and to hope that Cora’s mum never returns, that middle sister Edith gets her turn to be a bride and that Mr. Carson never again declares that he “feels badly.” And here I thought only Americans made that mistake.


Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors She the People. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.