Surprises add spice to Downton Abbey

THE YEAR'S BEST: The third season of Downton Abbey still has surprises for viewers.
THE YEAR'S BEST: The third season of Downton Abbey still has surprises for viewers.

On Thursday at 8.30pm, make sure you are close to a television set.

Switch on Prime, sit back, relax and enjoy the best programme of the year: Downton Abbey.

The writing of series creator Julian Fellowes has always been one of its strengths and in this third series he springs a few more surprises.

Not the least of which arrives in the first episode when the number of American characters is doubled from one to two, when Cora's mother (somehow Mum doesn't sound right) Martha comes over from the United States for the marriage of Matthew and Mary.

Martha is played by legendary American film actress Shirley MacLaine and watch out for fireworks as she and the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) clash more than just a bit. But if you're like Mrs Brown and enjoy a good wedding, don't miss the opening episode. I'm not sure why there is so much good stuff on at the moment, with the return of Homeland as well, but we'll enjoy it.

Seldom has the power of television been more obvious than in recent weeks. There was the televised American presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. The performances of both men combined to see a major shift in the polls, and Romney showed there was nothing sheepish about him. Up till then he'd been a distant second in the polls, but a couple of hours on the telly and that was reversed.

Across the pond, Sky News captured the insults, counter-insults and vivisection that passes for debate in the Aussie Parliament during the saga of the slippery speaker, Peter Slipper, who eventually resigned on Tuesday night. The exchanges between Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott and Prime Minister Julia Gillard just had to be seen to be believed.

Makes our elected chaps and chapesses seem quite civilised by comparison. In the meantime, our All Blacks are probably quite happy to know that their Wallaby counterparts don't have as much mongrel in them as their politicians.

I recently watched two programmes which are poles apart, but both had their attractions, in different ways.

One was the new series, the fifth would you believe, of Californication, on TV3 at 9.40pm on Mondays, and What's Really In Our Food, on TV3 at 7.30pm.

Californication is an adults-only-rated programme which revolves primarily around the sex life of writer Hank Moody, the ultimate male slut. David Duchovny plays him brilliantly and there are several layers of humour that neatly parody the rich and famous and the lays of their lives.

Naughty as Hank is, he almost pales into respectability compared with his sex-obsessed manager Charlie Runkle. He is a sex-obsessed, sick man with terrible taste, whose saving grace is that he ultimately loses pretty much everyone he values. This week I got Mrs B to actually watch the show - having the word fornication in the title always put her off - and to my surprise, and hers, she thought it was funny.

Not that she was entirely comfortable with some of the language, mind you. It can be incredibly crude, but there is little nudity and the sex scenes border on tasteful. I'm not sure that she would watch it again, but I find it hilarious. It's simply a matter of taking it at face value and enjoying the ongoing send-up of the American entertainment industry. If you can not be offended by the, um, adult nature of the dialogue, you'll enjoy it.

The other show, at the opposite end of the sensitivity scale, is What's Really in our Food. I've watched it a couple of times before, and it's generally been ho hum, but when they decided to have a look at chippies and dips this week I felt honour-bound to have a look. Mrs B is very partial to chippies and dip, especially as it goes with wine. Mind you, she and her friend Gay reckon any food group goes with wine. If they haven't got any food, then it doesn't matter, because more wine also goes with wine.

For many years Mrs B made her own dip with a packet of onion soup and other stuff. Nowadays we tend to get the bought stuff from the supermarket instead, and while I can honestly say I've never tasted any as nice as hers, they do tend to be pretty good.

What's Really In Our Food presenter Caroline Robinson does a good job, but the examination of everything is scientific and there is very little challenging of manufacturers giving evasive answers. A live interview or two would give it a bit more bite and be better for it. As for the chippies? Bad for us. The dip? Bad for us. Hmm, tell us something we don't know.

The Timaru Herald