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House again the hub of the action on new ‘Downton Abbey’ season

From left right: Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley Penelope Wiltas

From left to right: Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Grantham, Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham, Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley, Penelope Wilton as Isobel Crawley, Allen Leech as Tom Branson, Jim Carter as Mr. Carson, and Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes.

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Season three premieres 8 to 10 p.m. Sunday on WTTW-Channel 11

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Updated: February 5, 2013 6:26AM

The Great War is over, but it’s far from peaceful in the cosseted confines of Downton Abbey.

When the third season of the beloved British period drama picks up in 1920, the world is a different place — a place that doesn’t square well with tradition-steeped institutions like Downton.

Financial woes threaten the very existence of Lord and Lady Grantham’s sprawling estate, struggling to keep its footing amid tectonic shifts in the societal landscape. Britain’s rigid class structure is weakening. The “Irish Problem” is coming to a head. Women are shedding their corsets and finding their voices.

Inside the Crawley clan’s hallowed home, unrest and upheaval are just as prevalent.

“A world of change has hit Downton Abbey,” said Elizabeth McGovern, the Evanston-born actress who plays Lady Grantham, a k a Cora Crawley.

During a break in filming this summer, McGovern talked about what’s in store for season three, which kicks off its seven-episode run Sunday with a two-hour premiere.

“There are a lot of shockers,” McGovern said, “none of which I’m going to tell you because it would ruin it.”

Those shockers are about as secret as Kate Middleton’s pregnancy now that the entire third season has been seen in England — and here, illegally, by an estimated 1.5 million eager beavers who’ve pirated it. (Co-produced by London-based Carnival Films and PBS’ “Masterpiece,” the third installment of “Downton” aired last fall on Britain’s ITV and culminated with an explosive Christmas special.)

If you’re lucky enough to have dodged the spoilers so far, don’t worry: I won’t spill the beans. But I will implore PBS to run future seasons of “Downton” at the same time it airs across the pond. It’s a sentiment shared by Gareth Neame, who co-executive produces “Downton” along with writer and creator Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”).

“If I were PBS and I had the biggest drama I’d ever had in my entire 40-year history, I would be sorting my schedules out to make sure I was airing it more quickly,” Neame was quoted as saying earlier this week in Vulture, New York magazine’s entertainment website.

PBS told Vulture that “technical hurdles and financial considerations” have prevented it from airing the show earlier (read: during the crowded fall TV season). But a “Masterpiece” rep said spoilers and piracy are a couple of key reasons supporting the case to air the U.S. and the U.K. versions closer together and “the conversation about scheduling will continue.”

When U.S. viewers last saw the denizens of “Downton Abbey,” the youngest of the three Crawley girls (Sybil, played by Jessica Brown-Findlay) had eloped to Ireland with politically strident chauffeur-turned-journalist Branson (Allen Leech), and the couple was expecting a baby.

Stoic valet Bates (Brendan Coyle) was convicted of murdering his hag of a first wife, launching his new bride Anna (Joanne Froggatt) on a quest to clear his name this season, which comes dangerously close at times to feeling like “CSI: Yorkshire.”

In the season two finale, Downton’s reluctant heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) proposed to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) under a blanket of snowflakes.

“The war in the second [season] sort of took the story away from the house a little bit,” Dockery said over the summer. This season, “It’s come back to the core again — the family, the relationships below the stairs.”

This third season is more in keeping with “Downton’s” first. That will come as welcome news to disgruntled fans who felt like last season leaned too heavily on the battlefield trenches and improbable, super-soapy twists involving amnesia and miraculous medical comebacks.

Despite the complaints, season two still managed to be the most-watched “Masterpiece” series on record, with 17.1 million viewers tuning in for its seven episodes.

The winds of change blowing through “Downton’s” third season are personified by a new character, Martha Levinson. Martha is Cora Crawley’s unapologetically American mother played by Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine, a worthy opponent for scene-stealer Maggie Smith (Dowager Countess of Grantham).

“You Americans never understand the importance of tradition,” the Dowager Countess clucks.

“Yes we do, we just don’t give it power over us,” replies an unruffled Martha. “History and tradition took Europe into a world war. Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand.”

Martha, who unfortunately appears only in the first episode, is one of several additions to the cast. Awkward Alfred (Matt Milne) and dashing Jimmy (Ed Speleers) come aboard as new footmen, and Ivy (Cara Theobold) is hired as Downton’s kitchen maid.

Ivy replaces Daisy (Sophie McShera), who gets promoted to assistant cook but continues her reign as the show’s most annoying character.

Some things never change.

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