“Downton Abbey” has been sweeping the nation with its Season Two return to PBS, and obviously we're all obsessed here at XOJane. But why? As Salon recently posited, it's a show that derives its drama from the divide between the 1% and the 99%, but also unites progressives and traditionalists and celebrates the titled and the working class with equal bonhomie. In the United States, where we've never had a monarchy, the British caste system is fascinating.
I have a friend who is a very bro, conservative secret service agent who is completely engrossed with the Crawley family and the servants who serve them. WEIRD, right? I wonder if Barack and Michelle and Newt and Calista all tune in.
But it's hardly the first British class drama to captivate, although it may be the most addictive since the incomparable “Brideshead Revisited” -- every Sunday my Facebook status feed is clogged with everyone’s excitement about tonight’s episode or some shocking twist. I have a theory that everyone got a Netflix suggestion to stream Season One at the same time and couldn’t believe how good it was or their good fortune to catch Season Two, live, every Sunday.
“Downton Abbey” is delightful and very well done, but it is nothing but a bigger production value “Upstairs, Downstairs” mixed with a dash of Robert Altman’s underappreciated “Gosford Park.” The shtick of showing that a servant’s life in the big house is as chaotic and rich as the pretty, horsey types upstairs is done again and again in post War British literature, television and film.
Let blow your mind with some additional required viewing to complete your British mini-series education. There are the standbys that I think most of us of have watched over and over such as Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle’s “Pride and Prejudice” as well as the Jeremy Irons’ “Brideshead” opus. These deeper cuts are as good as “Downton Abbey,” if not better. You’re welcome!
"The Forsyte Saga"
ITV did an amazing remake in 2002 of John Galsworthy’s very popular "Forsyte Saga" (first aired in the late 60s for TV and there have been tons of radio plays and even a very bad Errol Flynn movie from the 40s!).
Epic in scope, the series begins in Edwardian England and takes us to post World War I. We get acquainted with the socially climbing Forsyte family; very wealthy, but not aristocratic. So, you know they are nouveau riche and have chips on their bony shoulders.
Soames, played with reptilian grace by my boyfrann Damian Lewis, likes to control his cousins, nieces, nephews and his much maligned wife Irene (THE CHICK IN THE WHEELCHAIR FROM “Notting Hill”!) with typical British malevolence. He’s a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and The Duke from “Moulin Rouge.” The story teems with infidelities, murder, wedded rape and passion.
Plus, I don’t know about you, but I love watching period dramas where women douche with those scary Lysol things in the washroom, post coitus. Makes me count my blessings.
"The Way We Live Now"
Ok, this one is just funny. You have a stellar who’s who in British TV/movies: Poirot from “Poirot (David Suchet).” Moaning Myrtle from “Harry Potter (Shirley Henderson).” The new Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) from Keira Knightley’s “Pride and Prejudice,” playing the world’s biggest, philandering dick. You also have Cillian Murphy looking dreamy and Miranda Otto doing the worst Texas accent ever to grace your television.
Based again on the famous 19th century novel by Anthony Trollope, this story also revolves around the horror of the nouveau riche set that invaded the aristocracy of England beginning in the 1870s. A mysterious, uncouth family invades society and gets everyone to invest in a harebrained railroad that’s supposed to connect Mexico with America. Fortunes are lost, maidenheads are broken, and giggles abound for the viewer.
"North and South"
Picture it: Industrial Manchester, England, England across the Atlantic Sea. A headstrong, busty, Vicar’s daughter moves from her comfortable Southern Oxford existence to the wicked North of England. She meets a brooding, stern but misunderstood mill-owner with an accent so thick it’s almost Beatle-like in its execution. She’s a do-gooder, he mistrusts his unionized workers. He’s dreamy, she’s busty and opinionated. He calls her lass, a lot. You know the spiel.
I love when Judi Dench plays a soft, kind hearted septuagenarian virgin. Anything to wash the taste out of my mouth from her creepiness in “Notes on a Scandal!”
Cranford takes place in 1850s England, also penned by Elizabeth Gaskell of aforementioned “North and South,” fame. It’s a small town where everyone knows each other’s business and it’s a town tragedy when the starving urchin gets hit by a buggy. Imelda Staunton is the town gossip and she is incendiary. Huge production value and very feel good.
True story, a couple years back I was pretty boozy from a happy hour after work and friends unexpectedly dropped by to see me drunkenly watching “Cranford.” I never heard the end of it. “Meghan porn” became a popular phrase.
Are you a fan of Dickens? Do you miss Gillian Anderson? Will it bother you that she does a very convincing English accent? Do you long to see more of Charles Dance being evil, aka Tywin Lannister from “Game of Thrones?” If you answer yes to any of the above questions, you’re ready for “Bleak House.”
“Bleak House” was Dickens’ 10th novel and one of his most celebrated. As with most Dickens plots, it spirals into a spider web of coincidence and sinister dealings with our lawmakers and betters. A trophy wife had a steamy affair with a sea captain (several years earlier) which produced a child she thinks is dead and she’s “bored to death.” Yup, that’s where the expression comes from!
It’s done expertly with great actors as well as darrrrrrk lighting that makes everything feel more sinister. The subplots are expertly done in a manner that can only be described as Dickensian. The series is 15 episodes long; so perfect for a blizzard coming near you, a couple months unemployment, or your next hard break up.