Downton Abbey is 'back to its best' with series three

Spoiler alert: new series starts with a pre-wedding row, while future of Downton hangs in the balance

LAST UPDATED AT 10:50 ON Mon 17 Sep 2012

THE SECOND series of Downton Abbey drew criticism for farcical storylines and clunky dialogue but the critics say ITV's period drama is "back to its best" for series three.

The first episode, which aired last night, showed Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley finally walking down the aisle - but not before a last-minute clash over the future of Downton. Lord Grantham has gambled away the family's fortunes on railway shares and Matthew is the only one who can save the estate.

Meanwhile, Lady Sybil arrives with her new husband, the former chauffeur Tom Branson, whose hot-headed idealism causes a curfuffle around the dinner table – and Shirley MacLaine makes her long-awaited entrance as Lady Cora's mother Martha Levinson.

The Guardian's Viv Groskop described it as "a vintage Downton opener, boding well for series three" with "a consignment of crushed velvet that would make Madame Bovary blush and a cornucopia of gothic jet-beading worthy of Lady Gaga's Monster Ball Tour... All in all, a promising first outing."

Ben Lawrence at The Daily Telegraph notes that viewers had become anxious after the "wonky, half-crooked" storylines of series two. But he assures fans that Downton felt like "a programme back to its best, the one we fell in love with back in 2010... The script was tight; the detail was there.”

He said writer Julian Fellowes's has assembled a large and varied cast of characters and made them interrelate in a plausible fashion, which is where the BBC rival Upstairs Downstairs has “so obviously failed".

Lawrence also praised MacLaine's portrayal of Martha, describing it as a "masterclass in how to command an audience".

The Arts Desk says the cast is as "magnificent as ever" but complains that the long anticipated meeting between Martha (MacLaine) and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) – billed as the clash of battle-axes – was "curiously muted".

In The Independent, however, Tom Sutcliffe points out that there are still seven more rounds to go in the "Vegas boxing bout". Fellowes "knew how to tease us with the prospect of combat between these two grand dames", writes Sutcliffe.

"In the red corner, Violet 'The Crusher' Crawley, a woman who can sour milk with a social observation. In the blue corner, the challenger, Martha 'The Democrat' Levinson, arriving from America to sneer at the hidebound traditions of the aristocracy."

Sutcliffe hands the first round to Maggie Smith. · 

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