‘Downton’ Channels MacLaine; Josh Gad Flops on ‘1600’: TV

Shirley MacLaine reinvigorates “Downton Abbey” with a brash performance and some grand Norma Desmond-in-training finery.

The seven-episode third season of the all-the-rage soap opera begins Sunday on PBS. A surprise-packed 90-minute finale airs February 17.

“When I’m with her,” sniffs Maggie Smith’s inimitable Dowager Countess about MacLaine’s very American Martha Levinson, “I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.”

Martha, the mother of Elizabeth McGovern’s Grantham matriarch Cora, sweeps into town for the long-in-coming wedding of granddaughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Downton heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).

“Mary!” coos the flamboyant, defiantly modern Martha. “Tell me all of your wedding plans! And I’ll see what I can do to improve them.”

MacLaine’s casting is a transparent attempt by writer/creator Julian Fellowes to double the series’ she-devil population, and, more importantly, provide Smith with a foil.

It’s 1920, the Great War is over and a very bad investment has left the Crawleys broke and Downton in jeopardy.

Martha’s wealth may be nouveau, but riches are riches.

Heavy Message

As fun as it is watching Smith and MacLaine go wit for wit, the Martha character is more than a bit heavy on the American Century message-toting.

“History and tradition took Europe into a world war,” she admonishes Smith’s ever-proper Lady Violet. “Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand.”

Despite the nods to New World modernism, though, “Downton Abbey” remains nostalgic for romanticized British classism.

Even Branson (Allen Leech), the radical Irish Republican chauffeur newly married into the Crawley family, overcomes his resistance to posh morning suits and Old World sentimentality.

Speaking of supercouple Mary and Matthew, Branson advises the cold-footed Matthew to steady on.

“The old me would have liked to put a bomb under the lot of you,” he says earnestly, “but you’re meant to be together.”

The Rebellion can wait.

“Downton Abbey” airs on “Masterpiece Classic” on Sunday, Jan. 6 on PBS at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2

‘1600 Penn’

Stuck somewhere between “Modern Family” and “Animal House,” NBC’s “1600 Penn” is a presidential mess.

A hodgepodge, single-camera sitcom about an impossibly eccentric First Family, “1600 Penn” stars Bill Pullman as President Dale Gilchrist and Jenna Elfman as his smarter-than-she-looks trophy wife Emily.

Though they have four children (including a pregnant unwed daughter, a 12-year-old lesbian and a precocious preadolescent nerd), the family wild card comes in the ample form of Skip, the oafish (but of course loveable) First Son played by Josh Gad (Broadway’s “Book of Mormon”).

Gad, a producer and co-creator of the series and at 31 a half-decade too old for this role, seems to be channeling any number of oversize “Saturday Night Live” comedians, from John Belushi to Chris Farley.

Worse, he looks to have stumbled onto “1600 Penn” from an entirely different (though no funnier) show.

His Skip offends (but inevitably wins over) visiting dignitaries and scandal-mongering press by mimicking foreign accents and floating, fully clothed, in the White House swimming pool he calls the Skiplantic Ocean.

“1600 Penn” gives the impression of having been designed as a vehicle for the zany Gad, then softened with “Modern Family” sentimentality.

“Sometimes,” says Pullman’s president after his dimwitted, goodhearted son has blundered onto a solution to something or other, “Skip knows exactly what to do.” Sometimes, clearly not.

“1600 Penn” airs Thursday, Jan. 10 on NBC at 9:30 p.m. New York time. Rating: *1/2

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include movies and New York Weekend.

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