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Brendan Coyle as valet John Bates in Downton Abbey, whose third season promises to be its most dramatic to date.
Show of the week: Downton Abbey, Sunday, Channel Seven, 8.30pm
A VAGUE whiff of scandal hovers over the Downton pile.
This time, however, it doesn't involve a night-time tryst with a Turkish diplomat, a Crawley daughter eloping with one of the servants, or a member of Mr Carson's staff being charged with the murder of his wife.
This one is of a far more arcane nature. Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) has discovered a small hole in his tuxedo, the repair of which is botched by a member of the downstairs staff who is fond of sabotaging best-laid plans (guess who?).
So, the heir apparent of what in any case is a non-existent fortune appears at an all-important dinner party wearing a dinner jacket. Unable to resist a wicked insult, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) mockingly asks when a member of the wait staff joined the ranks of the aristocratic family.
It's about this early point of Downton Abbey's third season that one might, quite understandably, wonder what relevance this sumptuous period drama has to a modern audience.
The answer, as we see in what is arguably the best season yet of Julian Fellowes' superb show, is plenty.
But back to the dinner party. The new season opens with preparations for Lady Mary's marriage to Matthew. Mary's American grandmother, Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine in a casting coup, if not a creative one, that delivered Downton Abbey huge ratings when it aired in the US), has joined the party, bringing to the stuffy mansion her heretical ideas about progress, commerce and merit, which, she proclaims, will supplant the privileges and entitlements that the British aristocracy, their heads buried deep in the sand, have taken for granted for far too long. The irony of the pot calling the kettle black is apparently lost on the dotty matriarch.
With her daughter Cora's fortune all but whittled away, the Crowleys hope she will rescue them from financial ruin by handing over more of her late husband's fortune.
Downton's first season was largely about the upstairs-downstairs affairs of the inhabitants of the imposing and austere Downton mansion. Upstairs, Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) set about solving the problems of finding a husband for the eldest of their three daughters, Mary (Michelle Dockery).
The heirs apparent died when the Titanic sank, but a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley, a ''country solicitor'', as Violet (Smith) describes him with evident disdain, emerges. The only problem is that Mary has her eye on another. Loyal butler Carson (Jim Carter) tried to keep order among a mostly mutinous staff, whose squalid living and working conditions led to them plotting against one another for the slim chance of a break in the caste-like system to which they are virtually tenured.
World War I was the backdrop of the second season, in which Matthew and other members of the household were dispatched to the trenches of France. Matthew was seriously wounded, Downton was converted into a hospital, and the war effort and austerity measures resulted in previously unimaginable relationships flourishing.
There's an outbreak of Spanish flu in the house. In the throes of death, Matthew's fiancee, Lavinia, realised that her betrothed was in love with Mary.
Though Downton Abbey is frequently dismissed as a glossy, upmarket soap opera, its third season indicates grander ambitions.
Fellowes, who created the show and has written every episode so far, is less interested in the too-obvious matter of the decline of the empire and its dwindling support base than he is in the innate dignity, stoic principles and fatal flaws of his characters.
Nor does he treat anyone as a historical cipher, but as vehicles to explore grand themes of forgiveness, honour, virtue, duty and sacrifice. The themes and dramas that emerge are timeless, universal and rarely short of compelling.
Though there are occasional dull patches, high-stakes casting gambits that just don't pay off and the continuing (dreary) saga of our favourite martyred victims to contend with (yes, that's you Mr Bates and Anna), there are also scenes and episodes of heartbreaking loss and sadness and compelling dramas that hinge on notions of loyalty and trust.
These come together in the traffic-stopping, mid-season episode, when the show delivers its greatest shock to date. It's a remarkable, flawless hour of TV that leaves one weeping, but also searching for consolation, which happens in an unexpected way the following episode.
A lesson in dinner attire and where to hold the tray when offering the Lady Dowager her supper isn't all that Downton Abbey is about. Like all great dramas, it has much to tell us about the world we live in today, as well as the tragedies of the human condition.