On the West London set of Downton Abbey, where all of the "downstairs" scenes are shot, two footmen in formal attire are about to bring another lavish meal upstairs to the waiting lords and ladies. It's a familiar sight, but don't let it fool you: As Season 3 of the Emmy-winning drama begins, the Grantham family and their servants are entering a different world altogether — and it may be a difficult one for them to digest.
"It's like that moment after a crash when you feel your body to see how many bones are broken," creator Julian Fellowes says. "In 1920, society was asking just how much of the old life was coming back [after World War I]. It was an exciting time, but it was also full of fear, because nobody quite knew what the new world would bring."
In the two years since its premiere, the British drama — part soap opera, part palatable history lesson — has inspired wild-eyed devotion, earning 120 million viewers worldwide. If reaction from a recent preview in a fan-packed Manhattan hotel ballroom is any indication, the U.S. is once again poised to go dotty for Downton.
Season 2 left the Granthams significantly better off than it found them. The Great War and the Spanish flu pandemic were over; Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) shattered the class barrier by marrying her one-time chauffeur, Tom Branson (Allen Leech); and on-again, off-again loves Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) finally became engaged.
"Mary is very happy this season," Dockery says. "As much as the angst between Matthew and Mary was enjoyable to play, it's lovely to be settled. Of course, like all marriages it's not perfect. But that's to come — the first episode is all wedding preparations."
The joyous occasion means a return to Downton for Sybil and Branson as well as the arrival of Cora's American mother, Martha Levinson. Producers sought out Shirley MacLaine for the part, figuring she could hold her own opposite fellow Oscar winner/force of nature Dame Maggie Smith. "Martha's basic role is to plead with the Dowager Countess to wrest herself away from tradition," MacLaine says, "and to become more flexible in relating to change."
The Countess' reputation for scathing one-liners and Martha's modern views and outspokenness raise the delicious prospect of some verbal mudslinging between the two. "We had our moments," MacLaine says. "But what happens is more sophisticated than that. We kind of understand each other."
Martha is less understanding when it comes to opening her considerable pocketbook. "She fits the bill of the American matriarch who lands across the pond with money," MacLaine says. "The Granthams expect her to finance whatever's wrong with Downton Abbey."
And there's plenty wrong. It turns out that Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), is a better aristocrat than he is a businessman. "He is not a man of figures," Bonneville says. "He's made a colossally bad investment that comes back to haunt him."
Luckily for Robert, he's surrounded by a well-heeled lot — and the odds of a bailout look good. "Matthew has a stroke of fortune, so he is able to help Robert," says Stevens, who is not returning for Season 4. But — and it's a big "but" — the principled Matthew doesn't feel right about accepting the inheritance and finds himself torn between helping his in-laws and doing what he believes is morally wrong.
Not surprisingly, Mary is less than thrilled with Matthew's indecisiveness when it comes to saving her family home. "Downton is Mary's legacy, and now that she and Matthew are married, she feels the weight of that more than ever," Dockery says.
Still, Mary and Matthew's woes don't hold a beef tallow candle to the dissension in the servants' wing. Loathsome lady's maid Sarah O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) has transferred her loyalty to her nephew Alfred, a new footman. And when Thomas (Rob James-Collier), her former partner in maliciousness, bullies Alfred, she sets in motion a plan to destroy him.
Downton Abbey premieres Sunday, January 6 at 9/8c on PBS.
For more on Downton Abbey, pick up TV Guide Magazine's Winter Preview issue on newsstands Thursday, January 3!