If season two of "Downton Abbey" was largely about the impact of the war, season three is more geared to domestic affairs, but they are no less dramatic.
Birth, death, lovers, the lovelorn, health crises, financial ruin and a business' rebirth are all featured in this new season, which more successfully fills its nine-and-a-half-hour running time than season two managed.
While some plots on "Downton Abbey" (starting 9 p.m. EST Sunday on PBS and continuing Sunday nights through Feb. 17; check local listings) may be more meaningful than others, nothing in season three rings as false a note as the Patrick-has-amnesia story in season two. This is a relief, as the law of diminishing returns could come into play at this stage of "Downton Abbey's" existence, but writer Julian Fellowes manages to keep the story entertaining and engrossing, in part because the characters are so well-loved and by now so well-established.
The early part of the season is largely focused on Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and her engagement to Matthew (Dan Stevens). Much has been made about the arrival of Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), mother of Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), who visits from America. And Martha does have some enjoyably biting exchanges with the Dowager Countess, Violet (Maggie Smith). But the character is only around for the first two hours of the new season.
The two-hour season premiere also addresses the incarceration of poor Bates (Brendan Coyle). Robert Crawley's valet was convicted of killing his nasty wife, who presumably committed suicide. That story ultimately takes a backseat this season because there are so many bigger problems -- familial and financial -- faced by the denizens of Downton.
Patriarch Robert (Hugh Bonneville) learns early in the new season that some of his investments have gone belly-up and he's lost a big chunk of the money his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), provided. Fellowes wisely allows Robert to spill the beans of the financial disaster to Cora almost immediately, rather than employing the hackneyed TV tradition of trying to hide a pending disaster.
"I refuse to be the failure, the earl who dropped the torch and let the flame go out," Robert says defiantly.
The new season sets up a nice story arc involving the financial future of Downton that pulls Matthew and even former chauffeur Tom Branson (Allen Leech) -- now married to Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay) -- into its orbit. This plot also offers a greater explanation of the role of estates like Downton, sometimes through the witticisms of the Dowager Countess.
"It's our job to provide employment," she says. "An aristocrat without servants is as much use to the county as a glass hammer."
Downstairs escapades include the introduction of a new footman, Alfred (Matt Milne), the nephew of bitter Mrs. O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran), and, later, a second footman, Jimmy (Ed Speleers, "Eragon"), who catches the eye of the downstairs ladies and mean gay valet Thomas (Rob James-Collier).
"You know the trouble with you lot: You're all in love with the wrong people," says Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol). Truer words...
This new season also shows more than ever a divide between the British and American perspectives that Robert and Cora bring to Downton Abbey ("Robert frequently makes decisions based on values that have no relevance anymore," Cora says). And religion enters the picture when Tom proposes that the child he's having with Sybil should be baptized Catholic.
"All that crossing and bobbing up and down," Robert says. "I went to Mass once in Rome; it was rather like a gymnastics display."
Three cheers for the return of "Downton," a costume drama that sets a new gold standard for the next generation of Anglophile TV viewers.
(Follow TV writer Rob Owen on Twitter or Facebook under RobOwenTV. Email him at email@example.com.)