January 3, 2013
Guest: Adam Nossiter
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Islamic extremists have a new sanctuary in northern Mali, where Islamic forces took over last April. Northern Mali is now the largest al-Qaida-held territory in the world. Jihadi judges have been sentencing some people they've accused of theft with having a hand or foot amputated.
The Islamists who now control the north seized power during a period of instability following a military coup in Mali last March that overthrew the country's elected government. My guest is one of the few American journalists covering the story. Adam Nossiter is the West Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. Before that he was based in New Orleans and covered Hurricane Katrina. Adam Nossiter, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Reading your reports about what's going on in the north of Mali is reminding me of when I first heard about the Taliban, like, before 9/11, and it seemed so barbaric but so far away. Mali seems very far away. But I've learned that what happens far away can have a very direct effect here and around the world.
So before we talk about some of the barbaric punishments and other horrors in Northern Mali, I'd like to start by asking you: If the Islamic extremists maintain control in Mali, what does that mean for America? What does that mean globally?
ADAM NOSSITER: Well, it means that the Islamic extremists in Northern Mali, who are either affiliated with al-Qaida or directly in al-Qaida, have an enormous sanctuary in a very strategic region of the world. It's been called the largest al-Qaida-held territory on the planet. And I think in geographical terms, that's about right.
I think that from anybody's point of view, that has to be considered a threat of considerable proportions, less so perhaps for the U.S. than for Europe. This is right at Europe's doorstep, and so consequently the French are extremely agitated about it.
But still, even for the U.S., I think it represents a threat. I mean this after all is a big expansive territory where al-Qaida fighters feel themselves in perfect security, and they're right. They control it absolutely.
GROSS: What's the mix of groups that control the north of Mali now? Because I know one of the groups is al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, and they are a group that's been linked to the attack on the American consulate in Libya.
NOSSITER: Well yes, that's true, although there are no direct proofs of that. There are three principal Islamist groups that are in control in Northern Mali now. There's al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. There is a group called Ansaruddin, which is made up of local ethnic Toureg fighters, allied with al-Qaida. And then there's an al-Qaida offshoot called the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which is really kind of a subset of al-Qaida.
So there are these three groups that control the north of Mali now, but it has to be said that the al-Qaida group appears to be the dominate one - both in terms of its aggression, in terms of its ability and willingness to fight and in terms of its armaments. So I think you can safely say that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb dominates in Northern Mali, and in fact, the people in Northern Mali, those who are left, don't make any distinction between these three groups.
And they basically all lump them together as al-Qaida. And if you talk to them, which I do only, unfortunately, by telephone, they refer to them all as al-Qaida. And I think, for shorthand purposes, it's not inaccurate to do so.
GROSS: Did you say unfortunately you only talk to al-Qaida by telephone? Shouldn't you be saying fortunately you only talk to them by telephone?
NOSSITER: Well, I did say that, and that's because a reporter wants to be on the ground and observing and watching and talking directly. But this is not possible for Western reporters now or for any Westerners because the kidnap threat is virtually 100 percent. In other words, if a Westerner like myself were to show up in Northern Mali right now, we would be certain to be kidnapped, held hostage for random and probably - possibly executed.
GROSS: Well, you've had some horrifying reports in the New York Times about extreme barbaric punishments that the Islamists have been meting out against people in the north - amputations of hands and feet. For what crimes is amputation prescribed now?
NOSSITER: Well, they're amputating the hands and feet of people they accuse of theft. And they're doing this on a regular basis. And they're doing it in public to impress the local populations, and they're continuing to do it. There were two more of these just the week before last in public, and there have been at least 14 of these amputations.
And I've talked to some of the victims, and it is indeed horrifying. I think one of the striking aspects of it is that those who are doing this feel perfectly justified in doing it and in fact will talk about it on the phone. I reach these people on the phone, these al-Qaida and affiliate commanders, and they freely admit to it, and they say that the Quran justifies everything that they do.
So these really are fanatical and hardened Islamists that we're talking about here.
GROSS: In one article, you told the story of two brothers. One of them is Moctar Toure, who had his hand amputated, and the other is the police chief of that town where Moctar Toure lived. The police chief is Moctar Toure's brother, Aliou Toure. And he did the - he performed the amputation on his own brother. You spoke to both of them, right?
GROSS: So let's start with Moctar Toure, whose arm was amputated. Would you tell the story from his point of view?
NOSSITER: Well, from his point of view, Moctar Toure is a young, 25-year-old truck driver in the city of Gao, which was a principal town in Northern Mali. And he has a connection with the Islamist-affiliated - with the al-Qaida-affiliated group in that his brother, his own brother, has been designated the Islamic commissioner of police in the town of Gao.
So Moctar Toure is recruited by the Islamists to be one of them when they take over this town in the spring of 2012. Moctar Toure says that he's reluctant to go along and, in fact, quits the training after two weeks. He begins to accumulate some weapons, he doesn't quite tell me how. But in any case it's not too long after that the Islamists who recruited him and who he abandoned are suspicious of him and accuse him of theft and espionage. And they imprison him.
And he spends weeks, and weeks and months in the miserable town jail of Gao, where he's abused. And then at the end of a certain period of time, he's told that he's going to have his hand amputated, in fact his forearm right below his elbow.
And it's his own brother who pronounces the sentence, and it's his own brother who wields the butcher's knife and cuts it off. And this is, of course, a very disturbing story, which Moctar Toure recounted to me, hopelessly, in a bus station in Bamako, where he now spends most of his days. He was a truck driver. He obviously can't work anymore.
And so yes, it is rather shocking that his own brother performed this operation. And then I spoke with Aliou Toure, the brother, the commissioner of police, and he freely admitted it. And again, he said that the Quran gave him no choice but to perform this terrible operation on his brother (unintelligible)...
GROSS: Let me just stop you here and read the quote that - this is what he said to you. This is how you quoted him in the article. The brother, the police commissioner who performed the amputation, said, "you know, my brother stole nine times. He's my own brother. God told us to do it. God created my brother. God created me. You must read the Quran to see what I say is true. This is in the Quran. That's why we do it."
NOSSITER: Yes, and that is the tenor of the discourse that one has from these people, people like Aliou Toure. It's very difficult to speak with them because you feel like you're, sort of, talking in a tunnel or shouting against a wall. They will simply bring up, over and over again, the Quran, the justification that they say the Quran provides, and they seem utterly convinced of what they're saying.
He's not the first one of these characters that I spoke with. And it's a circular sort of thing. And so there's really no reasoning behind it. It's a different way of thinking. And I don't believe that this is false or assumed on their part. And I say that because some of our most reliable and compelling witnesses to the practices of these people, confirm that they are a very, very fanaticized group of men.
I'm thinking, notably, of the Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, who was kidnapped by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and spent almost four months with them, and observed them closely and wrote about it in some detail. And he leaves absolutely no doubt, Robert Fowler does, that these people are utterly convinced of what they're doing, totally impregnated with their version of the Quran and intent on carrying it out.
GROSS: So the brother whose forearm was amputated, and he was accused of stealing guns, is he part of the resistance, the people trying to fight al-Qaida in the north of Mali?
NOSSITER: Well, he says he is. And it's possible that he is, in fact. I don't have confirmation of that. It's very difficult to get that kind of confirmation, because the contacts with that part of Mali are limited. But there are two things that one can say about this. One is that there is some resistance to the al-Qaida groups in northern Mali.
There have been demonstrations in the town of Gao against the practice of amputation. In fact there was one occasion when the Islamists announced that they were going to perform some amputations in public, and the population turned out en mass and blocked the access to the main square, where these amputations are performed.
You know, the other thing that one can say, is - and here I'm citing one of my contacts, one of my political contacts in northern Mali who's still there, a municipal counselor who's very much opposed to the Islamists - who says look, we can't take at face value the accusations of any of these people. They don't conduct proper trials, and they trump charges up, and they're fanatics.
So when they accuse someone of theft, we don't know that that's true. It could equally be true that they're punishing this person for political reasons, i.e., he was someone who resisted them. And that's certainly his story.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Nossiter. He's the West Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. And we're talking about Mali, what's going on in the north of Mali, where al-Qaida has taken over. Back after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about how al-Qaida has taken over the north of Mali in West Africa and what that means for Mali and what it might mean for the rest of the world. And with me is Adam Nossiter, who is the West Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. He is based in Senegal but has been reporting on Mali, and he's been reporting from the capital of Mali, Bamako.
One of the things we didn't talk about earlier, when we were talking about these barbaric punishments, is that the Islamic extremists have closed the former criminal courts building in Gao, in this town in the north of Mali, and they're trying to sell it. They don't need it anymore?
NOSSITER: Apparently not because that's not how they dispense their justice.
GROSS: How do they dispense their justice?
NOSSITER: Well, we're told that 10, 12 elders simply get together, sit down on mats on the floor and decide the cases. And they may or may not call on the accused to explain his or herself, but in any case, they'll take a vote, a majority vote, and if nine out of 12 decide that the poor man's hand is going to be chopped off, then it's going to be chopped off, and there's no appeal.
Sentences are carried out on the same day. So it's an expedited form of justice.
GROSS: One of the ways that the al-Qaida affiliates in the north of Mali have reminded me of the Taliban when they first took over in Afghanistan is that they banned music, and they've destroyed, was it the tombs of religious martyrs?
NOSSITER: Yes, the al-Qaida group, especially in Timbuktu, which is a very historic, ancient West African city, has set about the systematic destruction of the aboveground mausoleums, some of them centuries old, that the local people in Timbuktu venerate because they contain the remains of people considered saints in the Sufi religion.
And so they've systematically taken pickaxes and hammers to these monuments and leveled them. And this has been very, very shocking for the people in Timbuktu. They've expressed their horror to me, over the phone, shortly after having witnessed this. They've also banned any kind of music, and of course Mali has a very rich musical culture, but even so far as banning musical ring tones on cell phones.
If they catch you with a cell phone that plays a tune, they'll confiscate it, and they'll punish you. The only thing you can have on your cell phone is a verse from the Quran. So it's quite extreme.
GROSS: So who's in charge now in the south of Mali, the part that has not been taken over by al-Qaida? And what's their position on trying to send troops into the north to overthrow al-Qaida?
NOSSITER: Well, in Mali in the south now, you have a sort of temporary, makeshift, unelected government, that was cobbled together, essentially, by West African mediators. That's what you have out front. In the background, however, you have a cadre of junior military officers who carried out the coup d'etat in March, and they are the ones who are really calling the shots.
And they have had a distinctly ambiguous attitude about any kind of foreign intervention. They go back and forth on it, and much of that is due to a kind of sense of wounded pride. They don't want to acknowledge, these junior officers, that the Malian army is in fact incapable of re-conquering the lost national territory.
So they'll say one thing one day and one thing the next. They have finally come down in favor of a foreign intervention force under certain conditions. But you have, as I suggested, a kind of two-headed power structure in the south, and that's made it, again, extremely complicated and difficult for the West, which is, you know, trying to help to resolve this question.
GROSS: And do you think there's any chance that the al-Qaida affiliates in the north will take over the south of Mali?
NOSSITER: No I don't think that's going to happen. I think that, militarily, it's conceivable now, because the Malian army is in a pretty weakened and demoralized state, but the Islamists have not shown any desire to penetrate beyond the territory that they now hold.
And in fact there's some evidence that they, they're having difficulties performing routine sort of administrative and maintenance kind of functions. I mean, it's one thing to be an al-Qaida fighter in the desert. It's another thing to run a municipal water system, or electricity, or garbage collection or what have you. And there's considerable evidence now that they're not capable of doing this, which means of course further misery for the people who are living in these areas.
GROSS: Adam Nossiter will be back in the second half of the show. He's the West Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Adam Nossiter, the West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. We're talking about the North of Mali, which was taken over by Islamic extremists last spring. It's now the largest al-Qaida-held territory in the world and has become a sanctuary for jihadists. The Islamists controlling Northern Mali have been meting out barbaric punishments, like amputations. They've banned music and destroyed mausoleums of Sufi saints. Adam Nossiter is briefly back in the U.S.
Kidnapping has become quite a lucrative industry in Mali. You say over $90 million in ransom has been collected in the past decade by, what, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb?
NOSSITER: Yes. In fact, the U.S.'s own General Carter Ham, who heads the U.S. Africa Command, says that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is by some distance the wealthiest al-Qaida affiliate in the world and it's because of these kidnappings. They earn an average of $2 to $3 million per hostage taken - that is, for those governments that will pay ransom. Not all governments do. But yes, over the last 10 years or so they've earn close to $100 million by some estimates.
GROSS: Which means that their - they can afford to be very well-armed, better armed than the actual government, better armed than the actual army that Mali has. And it's also, I think, going to make it hard for any international force that tries to go in and overthrow the al-Qaida affiliates in the north, because that group is so well-armed.
NOSSITER: Well, yes, there are a number of...
GROSS: And funded.
NOSSITER: There are a number of difficulties that present themselves in the event of a military intervention in the North. One of them is, as you correctly point out, Terry, the fact of them being well-armed. Some of that is because, as you say, they're wealthy and are able to afford buying weapons. But much of it is because they helped themselves liberally to the open arsenals of Colonel Gadhafi when Gadhafi was defeated in Libya. And they literally went into these arsenals in southern Libya and took all sorts of weapons that have subsequently proved extremely useful to them, including, you know, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and all sorts of weaponry. So they're well-armed for two reasons. They helped themselves to Gadhafi's arsenal and they can afford to buy weapons on the market.
GROSS: How did they help themselves to Gadhafi's arsenal and which side were they on?
NOSSITER: Well, here it gets a bit tricky because here we have to start talking about the Tuaregs, the ethnic nomads who have lived for centuries in the deserts of northern Mali, southern Algeria, even into Libya. The Tuaregs have for many years been seeking some sort of independence or autonomy in northern Mali. They're ethnically distinct from the people in the South. And so they've waged a kind of low-level rebellion against Mali for many years.
Gadhafi had a romantic sort of affinity for these people and recruited many of them into his own army. So for many years Gadhafi had Tuareg units in the Libyan army and they fought for him, and they fought on his side in his attempt to stay in power in 2011. When Gadhafi fell, these Tuaregs, of course, you know, fled back to Mali. But they took with them when they fled the weapons that they had had, and in fact the weapons that Gadhafi had stockpiled in his arsenals, which were left totally unguarded and unprotected by the Western forces that, you know, helped topple Gadhafi.
This, just as an aside, is one of the principal complaints that the Malians have about Western reluctance currently. They say you overthrew Gadhafi and you armed the Tuaregs, so it's your responsibility now to disarm them and help us regain our territory. But in any case, the Tuaregs come back to Mali in the late, in the winter of 2011, early 2012, and they're well-armed. They're better armed than they've ever been in the course of an almost 50-year independence struggle, and they start to wage war against a Malian army that is in very bad shape anyway. It's corrupted. The generals live in Bamako in nice villas. They sell weapons. They don't pay their men. So the well-armed Tuaregs in northern Mali are confronting a demoralized and dilapidated Malian army. They easily defeat this Malian army.
Lurking in the background, meanwhile, are the various al-Qaida factions that have existed virtually undisturbed in the deserts of northern Mali for the last 10 years, and these are some pretty tough characters. There aren't many of them - three, four hundred people, but they're very tough and they're very good at fighting. The Tuaregs make an alliance with these al-Qaida fighters and it's an alliance of convenience, as it were. But what happens is very quickly the al-Qaida fighters prove themselves to be better, more warlike, fiercer, more determined than the Tuaregs, and they take the upper hand. And this is the disaster that no one wanted but that people should have anticipated, because the al-Qaida people are now in control.
GROSS: So the Tuaregs, who were an ethnic group within Mali, they get arms from Libya, do they overthrow the government when they get back to northern Mali?
NOSSITER: No. They defeat the Malian army early in 2012 - January, February, March. The Malian army is defeated by these Tuareg - well-armed Tuareg rebels.
GROSS: Just in the North.
NOSSITER: Just in the North. But, as a consequence of that, the remnant of the Malian army that's in the South is very unhappy and restive and blames the generals for having led the army into defeat. So these junior officers in the South overthrow the Malian government, democratically-elected government that, you know, had been practicing democracy in Mali for the last 20 years. So there's a military coup in the capital in March and it is, in fact, a direct consequence of the defeat of the Malian army by the Tuareg rebels in the preceding weeks.
GROSS: So listening to this story, I just think about unintended consequences. You know, NATO does air strikes in Libya to depose Gadhafi. Mission accomplished. You know, Gadhafi ends up being killed. A new government in Libya. But one of the results of that is what you've just described, that the government, the democratically-elected government in the north of Mali, falls, al-Qaida takes over and the people in the south of Mali are wondering so where's the West to help us now.
NOSSITER: That's exactly the case, Terry. It is a consequence of what could be considered a good deed, the overthrowing of Gadhafi by the West. But it is nonetheless a pretty direct consequence. And so now the Malians are saying with some justification, you got us into this mess, you have to get us out.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Nossiter, and he's the West Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. We're talking about the north of Mali, where al-Qaida affiliates have taken over.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Nossiter. He's the West Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. We're talking about the north of Mali in West Africa, where al-Qaida affiliates have taken over and are meting out barbaric punishments, including public floggings and public amputations of people who are accused of various crimes.
So the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution about trying to send forces into the north of Mali to depose al-Qaida, to run them out and restore a real government there. What did the resolutions say?
NOSSITER: Well, the resolution says to the neighboring African countries who have been agitated about this, yes, OK, go ahead, assemble your force, and you have our authorization to intervene. But it does not say we'll pay for this. It does not say, it does not give a timetable for this, and it doesn't say the West will help you in this, this and this manner. So it's all still in the offing. It's all still rather vague. I think the principle import of it is that the Security Council agrees that there needs to be military intervention in northern Mali. But everything else, every other detail - planning, timetable, logistics, that's all left in the offing and unspecified.
GROSS: Algeria, which borders the north of Mali, it's just to the north of the north of Mali, they have, you know, a relatively good army and France would really like to see Algeria participate in this African force and Algeria hasn't decided if it's going to or not. So what has France been doing to try to convince Algeria?
NOSSITER: Well, yes, you're absolutely right to highlight the potential role of Algeria. They are the key player in the region. The U.S. recognizes this and one can see this by the frequent diplomatic trips that have been made to Algiers by American diplomats. The Algerians have far and away the most competent army in the region. They waged their own 10-year war against Islamist extremists quite recently in the 1990s and they were successful. They brutally put down an Islamists uprising, and so they're not only good at this, they're experienced and they're right in the neighborhood.
But as you say, as you suggest, they're very reluctant to get involved. And the reason for that is the Algerians have come up with a strategy for dealing with the al-Qaida extremists that works for them, and that is a sort of modified containment. They keep these people outside their borders. They don't bother - generally now they don't bother the Algerians, with some exceptions, and that works for the Algerians. As long as they're outside the borders of Algeria, the Algerians don't really care what they do elsewhere. And so it has been difficult for Western powers, France and the U.S., to get the Algerians very excited or interested in what's going on immediately to the south of them.
The French, however, has been almost as - or perhaps even just as actively as the Americans - trying to get the Algerians involved. In fact, just the other week the French president, Francois Hollande, was in Algiers talking with the Algerians on this very question. But so far the Algerians really are not budging. They don't like this sort of thing at all, even though everyone recognizes that they could end the Islamist domination of northern Mali in a day. They could wipe it out.
GROSS: You know, I thought it was interesting that - I think this is part of the strategy France is using to try to convince Algeria to send troops to Mali. The president of France on a recent trip to Algeria talked about the profoundly unjust and brutal nature of France's colonial rule and said I recognize the suffering that colonialism inflicted on the Algerian people. France didn't apologize for its colonial rule and its treatment of Algerians, but it did recognize that it was profoundly unjust. So is that very significant?
NOSSITER: Yes, it is significant. The relationship between France and Algeria is very complicated and very fraught. And it is haunted by the memory of French rule for over a century and the brutal war of liberation that the Algerians fought against the French and the many French atrocities that were practiced against the Algerians in the 1950s. This is very much present in Algerian life today. There are museums in Algiers and there are monuments to the martyrs and streets are named and so on and so forth. So - and the Algerians on a day-to-day basis have a very sort of prickly relationship with the French and are very ready to take offense at perceived slights.
And the French recognize this but they've never officially come clean on their behavior in Algeria. So I think this was quite important for Algerian sensibilities, that Francois Hollande would take this step, a step that angered many people in France.
I mean, there's a large population of former Algerian settlers still in France, the pieds-noir, and they're not at all keen on, you know, apologizing for the years of French domination. So, yes, this was an important, soothing step for the French to take.
GROSS: So I just think this is an illustration of how among the many reasons that Africa is so complicated in terms of maintaining democracy is that you have the consequences of colonialism and you have Islamic extremism.
NOSSITER: Yes. These are two very complicating factors both in the way events unfold in Africa and in the way that they then have to be dealt with and hopefully ameliorated. Both of them have to be taken into account in any kind of solution. For instance, the French recognize that they can't simply themselves go in to northern Mali and take out the Islamists extremists.
Because, you know, then they're simply back in their old role of colonial power. They don't want to do this. On the other hand, the Malians, under their breath, wish that they would. But were the French to do so, the political consequences would be severe, disastrous.
We're seeing that in Ivory Coast right now where the French overthrew the dictator Laurent Gbagbo in 2011. And as a result, the government that's in place now is considered illegitimate by many Ivorians. So the French can't do that. On the other hand, they have to play some sort of role. But it can't be too overt. So, yes, Terry, you're absolutely right to point to these two complicating aspects of dealing with Africa.
GROSS: So when do you go back to Africa?
NOSSITER: January 9th.
GROSS: Well, I wish you safe travels. Thank you for your reporting and thank you for talking with us on FRESH AIR.
NOSSITER: My pleasure, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Adam Nossiter is the West Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. You'll find links to some of his articles about Mali on our website freshair.npr.org. Season three of "Downton Abbey" starts Sunday on public TV. Coming up, our TV critic David Bianculli has a review. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: On Sunday, the PBS anthology series "Masterpiece Classic" begins season three of "Downton Abbey," the British period drama that has taken England and America by storm. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Downton Abbey," the drama series about the residents and servants at a grand estate in early 20th century England, has done for PBS what the commercial broadcast networks couldn't achieve last year. It generated a hit show, one whose audience increased over its run and left its fans hungry for more.
And that's a lot of hunger, because when season two was televised here in the States on PBS, it averaged seven million viewers, more than most TV shows on any network, cable or broadcast. In fact, it's the largest audience in the history of "Masterpiece," a PBS franchise that goes back more than 40 years.
And the secret to the success of "Downton Abbey" can be found in the early history of "Masterpiece Theater." In 1974, "Masterpiece Theater" imported the first installment of "Upstairs, Downstairs," which caught on in America just as "Downton" has now and with a very similar story.
That miniseries showed life in a proper upper class British household from the points of both the ruling class - the upstairs - and the servant class - the downstairs. Back then, in an era before video cassette recorders, fans held "Upstairs, Downstairs" viewing parties and waited impatiently for each installment.
With "Downton" fans in the U.S. either caught on PBS or gobbled it up afterward on DVD or downloaded it. But the effect is the same and so is the quality. Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of "Downton Abbey," has done a great job making a very compelling period soap opera. Season three, which starts Sunday, is his best work yet.
The first two seasons spent a lot of time dealing with world events outside the household, from the sinking of the Titanic to World War I. Season three, set at the start of the 1920s, focuses almost exclusively on events within the Downton estate itself. And as far as plots and intrigue go, that's plenty.
As the season begins, one storyline concerns the post-war economy and how Robert Crawley, who owns the estate, may have to sell it. Out of desperation, Cora, his American wife, sends for her wealthy mother to visit in hopes that the Crawley women can persuade her to finance their lavish lifestyle.
The mother, Martha, is played by new cast member Shirley MacLaine, who's excellent. She doesn't steal the show - she can't. Not with Maggie Smith already dominating every scene she's in as Cora's mother-in-law, the acerbic, sarcastic dowager countess. But MacLaine fits in perfectly. Here's a scene in which the dowager countess comments about Cora's brother when what she really wants to do is charm Martha into sharing her fortune. But for the dowager countess, charm doesn't come easily.
During this conversation you'll also hear Elizabeth McGovern as Cora and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, one of the three Crawley daughters.
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MAGGIE SMITH: (as Violet Crawley) It always seems so strange to me that Cora has a brother.
SHIRLEY MACLAINE: (as Martha) Why?
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: (as Cora) You don't know how things work here, Mother. If there's a boy the daughters don't get anything.
SMITH: (as Violet Crawley) There's no such thing as an English heiress with a brother. Why do we never see him?
MACLAINE: (as Martha) Oh, Harold hates to leave America.
SMITH: (as Violet Crawley) Curious. He hates to leave America. I should hate to go there.
MICHELLE DOCKERY: (as Lady Mary) You don't mean that, Granny, when we're both so drawn to America.
SMITH: (as Violet Crawley) Indeed. Indeed we are, never more than now when the bond between the Crawleys and the Levinsons are so strong.
MCGOVERN: (as Martha) That's nice. If you mean it, Mama.
SMITH: (as Violet Crawley) I do. It is marvelous the way our families support each other.
MACLAINE: (as Martha) You mean you needed the Levinson cash to keep the Crawleys on top.
DOCKERY: (as Lady Mary) I'm not sure we'd put it that way.
SMITH: (as Violet Crawley) I'm quite sure we would not.
DOCKERY: (as Lady Mary) But I hope you do feel that Mama's fortune has been well spent in shoring up an ancient family.
MACLAINE: (as Martha) Huh. Nah, you gotta spend it on something.
BIANCULLI: That scene, like most scenes in "Downton Abbey" has two layers. There's the veneer of the social graces, the ritualistic politeness of it all. And beneath that shiny surface there's what's really going on - the desperation, the intrigue, the jealousies and obsessions and secrets. Every character in "Downton Abbey" from the lowliest cooks maid to the earl of the estate, is a delight to spend time with.
And even the occasional exterior shots of the estate itself are breathtakingly beautiful, whether shown in bright sunlight, moody moonlight, or misty rain. The building is so gorgeous, inside and out, it's understandable why those who live and work there want to cling to it, whatever their station. And for "Downton Abbey," the TV series, the station in America is PBS.
While American cable TV gives us the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo as royalty, "Masterpiece Classic" has generated a hit by treating us to a touch of class and to Shirley MacLaine, as Martha, leading her stuffy British in-laws in an impromptu sing-along.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as Crawley family) (singing) Let me call you sweetheart. I'm in love with you. Let me hear you whisper that you love me too. Keep the love light glowing in your eyes so true...
MACLAINE: (as Martha) (singing) Let me call you sweetheart. I'm in love with you.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history and Rowan University.
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