NEW YORK — The third season of PBS' “Downton Abbey” ends at 9 p.m. Sunday with a bang. Exactly what that bang is, we're not going to say, in deference to the maybe half-dozen “Downton” fans who still don't know the shocking truth.
The larger point remains that after Sunday's “Masterpiece Classic,” viewers must suffer “Downton” withdrawal until next season. But until then, we'll have our memories.
And what a season this has been! The beloved valet Mr. Bates was sprung from jail and a trumped-up murder charge to begin married life with his bride, the plucky lady's maid Anna. Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, has gotten Downton Abbey back on its feet financially with an able assist from his son-in-law and presumptive heir, Matthew Crawley. Matthew wed his true love, Lady Mary Crawley. But another of Robert's daughters, Lady Sybil, died tragically during childbirth.
“Downton” is a plush, penetrating peek into the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their household servants in an English castle of a century ago. With a cast that includes Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Dan Stevens, Jim Carter and Brendan Coyle, the series this season has drawn an average 11 million viewers each week while spurring another surge of “Downton”-mania, even from first lady Michelle Obama, who pulled strings to get episodes of the new season before it premiered.
The 49-year-old Hugh Bonneville brands himself a member of the British middle class — the son of a surgeon and a nurse who once imagined becoming a lawyer — and his roles have strayed some distance from the lofty likes of Robert Crawley. For instance, Bonneville has been affable and bumbling in “Notting Hill” and “Mansfield Park,” and downright villainous in “The Commander.”
Bonneville realizes that “Downton” is a good bet for the lead citation in his obituary. This show is a cultural phenomenon, not just a fleeting fad.
“This is one of the few settings, alongside a hospital and a police station, where you can legitimately find a real cross-section of society under one roof,” notes Bonneville. “But underneath it all, this series is about romance rather than sex, it's about tension rather than violence, and it's about family — both the literal family and the staff as family. It explores the minutiae of those social structures, the nuances of the system as to whether someone's in or out.”