Will Downton Abbey jump the shark?

Maybe, but there’s still plenty that the third season has to offer (here’s looking at you, Mrs. Patmore)

For those who haven’t been counting down the days, the gossipy, aristocratic soap opera Downton Abbey starts its third season on Jan. 6, 2013 on PBS’s Masterpiece. The American series has stripped all the commercials out of the original ITV installment, and is presenting it in seven very long episodes.  I’ve seen the first six and while I wouldn’t dream of giving away major plot points, there are a few things I need to mention.

Firstly—and sadly—this isn’t a great season. The plots are increasingly unbelievable (the very accepting 21st century reactions to two sex scandals involving below stairs staff seem totally out of time and place); new characters pop up and then vanish, while others are just plain annoying (the new blond footman especially) and standbys like the dowager Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) get wheeled out the minute a story line needs bumping up. It’s as if creator Julian Fellowes frittered away his writing schedule on other things, then, panicked, threw everything against a wall to see what would stick. The actors do their best, but it’s a bit of a slog, albeit one with fabulous sets and wondrous costumes. And there’s one point in particular that had me realize that yes, even Downton can jump the shark. Sniff.

Here are five things to look out for:

1. Anna and Mr. Bates: Yes, yes, I know Anna is now Mrs. Bates and his first name is John, but that’s how everyone refers to them, so who am I to upset the apple cart? At the end of last season, he’s been convicted of his first wife’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Anna is determined to clear his name. Their plot, which arcs through each episode, is the highlight of the season. Who cares about Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley when you’ve got these two, bravely soldiering on. When a crisis arrives for Anna and Mr. Bates via Royal Mail, it’s a full-on 10 tissue moment.

2. Mrs. Patmore as the ingenue: OK, so the head cook at the fictitious grand house may be well into her 50s, but after two years largely relegated to the B team (below stairs), the character played by actress Leslie Nichol is a knockout this season. Bonus: she’s got the best giggle and some of the sharpest one-liners on the show. Watch out Maggie Smith!

3. Canada is evil, part three: Why does creator Julian Fellowes not like us? Did a Canadian break his heart? In the first season, it was that remorseless Canadian iceberg that did in the heir and spare and sent Downton into a tizzy. In the second it was that mysteriously amnesiac Canadian soldier who threatened the Crawley family. This time it’s the Grand Trunk Railway. You don’t even have to google the name to know there are bad times in store for the Crawleys.

4. The fashion rocks: Well, with plots a tad thin, just sit back and enjoy the costumes. It’s now the ’20s, so hemlines are going up, dresses are getting more daring and the jewellery is rather glam. The big family tiara even gets a workout. In fact, the art design on the series is so superb that Ralph Lauren is now a sponsor of Masterpiece.

5. The moment when the show jumps the shark: It involves Tom Branson, the rough former chauffeur from Ireland—and a staunch republican to boot—who has married Lady Sybil, and evening wear. He slips on a nicely tailored black suit and suddenly he’s part of the family. So predictable and totally unbelievable. Yes, there are rough patches in his future, but the Crawleys always win the day. Not convinced? Just wait until the cricket match. Still on the fence? Then watch out for the big fight between Lord and Lady Crawley (double sigh over all the time wasted on a bad plot).