After garnering huge buzz in its first season, Julian Fellowes' "Downton Abbey" alienated some critics and fans during its second season. Skeptics pointed to a barrage of soapy plot lines and implausible events (Matthew Crawley's post-war trauma, anyone?)
Surprisingly, at least one of the show's stars also feels ambivalent about what went down recently in Grantham-land.
Elizabeth McGovern, who plays the countess Cora Crawley in the costume drama, says she wasn't entirely pleased with the recent direction of the series about the aristocracy in turmoil, which wrapped up its most recent stateside run on PBS this past February.
"There is a slightly different tone to the second season, partly because the show had to deal with this huge elephant which is the First World War, and in some ways 'Downton Abbey' wasn't set up for that," McGovern told Show Tracker. "What's made the show successful and different is that attention to character detail and that's what the audience likes. ... Writers [in the second season] had to do a lot of glossing over the domestic life, and some of the small moments between characters that characterized the first season."
Then, acknowledging that fans felt a little fatigue at all the fast-moving events, McGovern said, "I was feeling that a little myself. It's kind of a taste thing, and the show in the first season was more to my taste than the show in the second season."
Speaking to promote her Tribeca Film Festival costume drama "Cheerful Weather for the Wedding" (more on that shortly), McGovern said that "Downton Abbey's" third season will return to the character-oriented roots, as the series picks up after the Great War in 1920. The new season has been shooting in England this spring.
McGovern waved aside reports that new BAFTA nominee Maggie Smith, who plays the scheming Violet Crawley, could be off the show anytime soon. "You're going to see a lot of her in the third season, a real collision of worlds between Maggie and Shirley MacLaine," McGovern said, alluding to the Oscar winner's new part as Cora Crawley's mother.
Born in Illinois, McGovern had a successful run as a film and theater actress in the U.S. before moving to Britain and becoming a television star. She says she is as confounded as anyone by the stateside success of "Downton," which attracted more than 5 million American viewers for its finale.
But she does have a few theories about its success -- namely, that it's a reaction to much of what's on American basic cable.
"Maybe it's an escape from what I perceive as the nastiness of a lot of television that's just trying to be cutting edge, the things very prevalent on TV today with everyone trying to outshock each other," she said. "There's a nastiness that's happened. I think there's something about 'Downton Abbey' that people find it to be relieving -- essentially that these characters are quite nice."
She paused. "And the lack of texting and mobile phones. I think people find that to be a real relief too."
-- Steven Zeitchik in New York
Photo: Elizabeth McGovern and Jim Carter in "Downton Abbey." Credit: PBS