- Associated Press - Thursday, January 3, 2013

There are many delicious reasons to watch the returning “Downton Abbey” and an exasperating one to skip it: The cover’s been blown on major plot twists.

In what may be outsized revenge for the American Revolution — or payback for years of exporting lousy U.S. TV and fast food — the Brits are sharing “Downton Abbey” with us, but only after first airing each season.

That wouldn’t matter much in the drama’s early 20th-century setting, but we’re not there, are we, PBS and U.K. network ITV? A little gimmick called the Internet makes it impossible to keep story developments from spreading like germ warfare.

As with sports fans who must avoid all media and bigmouthed friends to keep game scores a surprise, “Downton Abbey” addicts are forced to shun rude news reports and blogs about what happens to character A, B or C (no spoilers here, promise).

Heedlessly type in “Downton Abbey, season three” into a search engine, and you risk stumbling into the startling truth that … well, never mind. If you know, you have our sympathy. If you don’t, live in blessed ignorance and careful isolation from Sunday’s debut until the Feb. 17 season finale.

Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS’ “Masterpiece” showcase that’s home to “Downton,” contends it’s premature to assess the impact here of the U.K. airing of season three that wrapped on Christmas Day. Will ratings be dented by dampened enthusiasm or piracy?

“It will be difficult to say until it airs in this country,” Ms. Eaton said, with the size of the audience providing a key measurement.

The bar is high compared with last year, when “Downton Abbey” became the most-watched series ever for “Masterpiece” with more than 17 million viewers across seven episodes. With its swooning, buzzworthy romances, the drama also fed social media and gave PBS a new veneer of cool.

But what’s to be done if the season endgame is stuck in your brain? As a famous Brit said in more dire circumstances, never surrender! Go along for the ride that the beautifully produced soap opera/fairy tale offers, admiring how the devilishly clever Julian Fellowes, its creator and writer, foreshadows the events to come.

As Downton’s residents adjust to post-War War I England, “there are chills and spills involved in that for all the characters, some laughs and some tears,” as Mr. Fellowes neatly summed it up.

Knowing the destination doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the scenery, including these highlights:

• Newcomer Shirley MacLaine as an American visitor, talking smack with British in-law Violet (Maggie Smith), each wittily knocking the other’s nation and values. Miss MacLaine wears pasty, Kabuki-like makeup as armor; Miss Smith meets insults with world-weary eyes.

• Michelle Dockery keeping it real as Lady Mary, who’s surrendered to love with Matthew (Dan Stevens) while barely softening her sharp edges and steely devotion to family tradition. Bonus: The willowy actress was born to wear sleek 1920s dresses.

• Fashion and its evolution, as Downton’s upstairs ladies move from lovely but fussy wardrobes to sassier, clean-lined garb and (except for steadfast Mary) shorter hair, reflections of liberating changes that include the promise of universal suffrage for all British women.

• Mr. Stevens as golden-boy Matthew, emerging intact from World War I and still conflicted about his future role as lord of the manor.

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