‘Downton Abbey’ season 3 DVD: or, binge TV watching

When the compulsively watchable “Downton Abbey” began its third season on PBS last month, I watched it week-by-week like everyone else.

It was annoying not to be able to race through a whole season in a weekend the way I did with the first two “Downton” series on DVD.

I was late to the “Downton” party, months after the first two seasons had their first runs on American television, so I was able to gobble up the series as quickly as I could (and that was pretty quick!)

With so many dramatic developments this year, the early January suspense was killing me, so I was thrilled when PBS sent me the complete season three DVD a few weeks ago. (I was desperate to see the final episode shocker I had heard about after it aired in England in December.) The DVD set and Blu-Ray version were released on Jan. 29. 

As much fun as it is to follow the live Tweets of fans of “Downton” each Sunday night as the new episodes air — it’s like having thousands of smart and snarky friends in your living room — I just had to know, right now!, how things were going to end this year for Lord and Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville) and their family and staff and friends (and enemies).

The three disc set includes a batch of excellent extras including a mini-documentary on the casting of Shirley MacLaine as the American mother of the Countess, and behind-the-scenes views of the research and elaborate design work that goes into each episode.

MacLaine’s performance has been controversial with fans of the show, but I love her dry, unsentimental take on the role, and the way her straight-shooting American viewpoint ruffles the feathers of the “Downton” regulars.

Show creator and chief writer Julian Fellowes has taken some huge — and very risky — chances with the storytelling this season. Fans of the show are still recovering from the childbirth-related death of the Grantham’s youngest daughter, Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay).

Sybil’s plotline was one of the best on the series, with her liberal politics causing a rift with other family members, and her marriage to the Irish chauffeur (and IRA supporter) Branson (Allen Leech) outraging her father.

The Sybil death episode has already aired on PBS and Fellowes did a beautiful job of using the tragedy as a way to make major and solid changes in the plotting.

“Downton” has also moved through time much faster than most high gloss soaps, with years passing between the seasons, and World War I racing by in just a few episodes. Lots of TV producers would have devoted multiple seasons to what happened to the family during and after the war.

The new series of episodes have done a good job of transforming the gay butler Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) into much more than the scowling villain of the first two seasons. Thomas risks exposure — and jail time — when he is drawn to a very attractive new staff member. The series has reminded viewers that homosexuality was a serious criminal activity in England up until the 1960s, and Thomas has been presented much more sympathetically in season three.

The finale is airing on PBS this Sunday and I know that lots of fans will be horrified by what happens in the last few minutes. I’m still not quite sure what I think about the enormous risk Fellowes is taking as he moves on to season four, so it will be especially interesting to read the Twitter feed that night.

Meanwhile, if you want to indulge yourself in a season three “Downton” binge, the DVD set is available to watch in as few or as many sittings as you desire. It’s a great way to enjoy a favorite TV show.

Joe Meyers