Downton Abbey began its four-episode run on Sunday night, and it is crisp, daffy, intricate fun, a sort of Upstairs Downstairs as conceived by a cross between Angela Thirkell and P.G. Wodehouse. Their literary love-child is screenwriter Julian Fellowes, who has us following tense aristocrats and brisk servants in the early 20th century, as both social classes seek money, love, and respect.
The upstairs contingent, led by the sniffy but stout-hearted Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his American-born wife (a radiant Elizabeth McGovern), are all atwitter because their vast real estate and financial holdings are in peril due to a knotty bit of inheritance law.
Scene-stealing with a ferocity that belies her age is Maggie Smith as the family dowager, snob, and mischief-maker. Down among the servants, there’s a throng of variously sneaky, ambitious, snippy, and loyal workers who serve up running commentary on what we’re watching, as well as providing their own drama.
Masterpiece — formerly Masterpiece Theatre and in recent years fractured into PBS’ attempt at franchising, yielding foolish phrasings such as Masterpiece Mystery! and Masterpiece Contemporary — has subsisted mostly on British imports and most heavily upon adaptations of British novels. (The Jane Austen canon has been given a particularly good going-over.) As far as original work goes, however, I’d say you have to go back as far as House of Cards or perhaps even Prime Suspect to come up with superior product from this series.
Downtown Abbey is lightweight stuff compared to those two productions, of course, but there’s no reason to think that just because a piece of entertainment is airy and puts a smile on your face, it isn’t as worthy a work as one that grapples with heavy themes and Make You Think.
Did you watch Downton Abbey?
What have been some of your favorite PBS Masterpieces of the past?
P.S. Check out the latest EW TV Insiders Podcast as Dalton Ross, Mandi Bierly, Adam B. Vary, and I tackle subjects ranging from The Bachelor (thank goodness Mandi watches that) to Adam’s exclusive scoop on the new American Idol judges panel to what mid-season TV shows are worth watching (that’s where I come in). You can hear it right here.