There's a point in the life of every iteration of Bravo's mega-hit reality series Real Housewives when the show turns a crucial corner and becomes tiresomely self-aware. It's when the cast members have suddenly figured out that they're famous, that certain storylines get them more attention than others, that they could be making more money than they already are. The crossing of this particular rubicon usually comes around the third season, when the show has gained cultural traction and a devoted following and word of their power has sufficiently seeped into every Housewife's head. It's usually at this point that, to me anyway, it's time to shut the show down. But, of course, they never do. And now, way on the other side of the television quality spectrum, we have the third season of Downton Abbey, a Masterpiece Classic presentation that has, despite its elegance and period delicacy, perhaps entered into its own version of that perilously self-aware phase, too keenly cognizant of the Downton craze at the expense of fostering what created the craze in the first place.
Which is to say, didn't last night's premiere feel awfully meta, especially for a delightfully earnest soap like this one? There was so much talk of the meaning of Downton Abbey, the actual physical place, and were so many indicating nods to all the classic Downton stuff we've come to love — Dame Smith's droll bons mots, Matthew and Mary's push-pull love affair, Thomas and O'Brien's frowny scheming. It felt in some ways like the show was doing a pastiche of itself or putting together some sort of greatest hits album. Though there was a lot of talk — and I mean a lot of talk — about time moving on, it being 1920 now, this first installment of season three played a lot more loudly as a rehash of the past. It read, to me, like Jullian Fellowes and company have been cowed or maybe even corrupted by their huge success, making the show a presentational procession of the stuff they think we want rather than further developing and expanding their story. It struck me as an interesting, though unsettling, variation of third-season reality show malaise, which, coming off a sometimes overly grandiose and soapy second season, could mean trouble for Downton.