'Downton Abbey': Real Housewives of the 1920s

The sensational 'Downton Abbey' returns with Maggie Smith crushing Shirley MacLaine in the ultimate Anglophile bitchfest

downton abbey
Nick Briggs
Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson in 'Downton Abbey'
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Nice try, Shirley MacLaine. But the old-school English aristocrats of Downton Abbey already have a resident rage queen, and her name is Dame Maggie Smith. She might be pushing 80, but as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, she handles a one-liner like a bayonet. When she hears she's getting a visit from MacLaine, she says, "I'm so looking forward to seeing your mother again. When I'm with her, I'm reminded of the virtues of the English." When someone responds, "But isn't she American?" the Countess flares about an eighth of a nostril and sneers, "Exaaactly." And that's how it's done.

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There's something superbly shameless about the way Downton Abbey begins its great third season with a bit of Hollywood stunt casting, sending in MacLaine as the rich Yank who rattles everybody's nerves in the stuffy English society of 1920. Shirley Mac certainly has the moxie, since she was the token broad in Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack. So it's fun to see her face to face with Maggie's Countess in a frown-clash showdown, flaunting her crude manners – she talks with her mouth full and mispronounces French words on purpose. (She relishes saying "idea fixee" the way Lil' Kim loved to pronounce it "Christian LaCroyx.") But did anyone think Maggie was going to lose this battle on her own turf? Never that. It sums up the whole cross-cultural conflict: Hey, our mean old ladies can out-bitch your mean old ladies.

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That's the weirdness at the heart of Downton. It depicts a vanished world of Edwardian aristocracy, but modernity is always a major character lurking in the corner of the room. However big a deal it is in its native land, Downton Abbey is so perfectly tailored to U.S. Anglophiles it's scary. Creator Julian Fellowes loves to keep throwing in old-world vs. new-world collisions, like the great moments when the Countess has to grapple with innovations such as the telephone. When she struggles to keep her balance on a swivel chair ("Another modern brain wave?"), and is told it was invented by Thomas Jefferson, she fumes, "Why must every day involve a fight with an American?"

This is the first Downton Abbey season produced after it became a surprise U.S. success, and the confidence shows. The story still goes for soapy twists, but with more assurance. The basic tension comes from any Henry James novel: The Americans have the new money, the Europeans have the old manners, but the money tends to win, and the Brits resent their compromises. As the Countess sniffs, "No guest should be admitted without the date of their departure settled."

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There's always been a lot of mourning on Downton, as the Crawley family and their below-stairs servants reel from the rush and the push of the 20th century. They grieve for what's lost, without any clear sense of what is left to build on. They can't afford to keep up their family mansion, yet they have trouble with the fundamental concept of getting a job. The Crawleys would much prefer to cling to the old order, even as they watch it disappear. Their empire, as Michael Corleone would say, has been dying of the same heart attack for 20 years.

If the Countess is having more fun than anyone, it's because the pressure's off. She knows there's no future in England's dreaming, and she doesn't care. She's too old to start over – but what's everybody else's excuse? Yet that just adds to the hyperbolically English repression of it all. The collapse of the aristocracy gives the Countess her perpetual sour temper, but that's a decidedly good thing. Because the surlier she gets, the livelier Downton Abbey becomes.

This story is from the January 17th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1174: January 17, 2013