'Downton Abbey' is the best original 'Masterpiece' since 'Prime Suspect.' Did you watch it?

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?

Twitter: @kentucker

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Comments (136 total) Add your comment
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  • Lisa Simpson

    Thanks for reminding me to set the DVR.

    • Tash

      Ditto. Can’t wait.

    • Michael

      O my gosh, that looks AMAZING!

    • Betty

      I’ve had the pleasure of watching the entire first season (or series, as they say in Britain), and it’s truly fantastic! I’m so thrilled to hear that it’ll be here in the US, too. Will have to DVR it and watch it all over again!!! Can’t wait for season 2.

    • WngIt

      It’s on PBS.org under video’s. The 1/9 airing is on line until 2/12. Sunday’s will be on line MOnday…for a limited time as well. LOVE it!

  • Lovleen

    I’m a big fan of their masterpiece theatre work. Especially the JANE AUSTEN movies! I can never get enough of Jane Austen :)

  • LizP

    I’ve been patiently waiting for this to air since I heard all the accolades it got in the UK. I will, indeed, be watching!

    Am also going to be watching Upstairs, Downstairs and Any Human Heart when they are on later this year. Two other fantastic Brit imports.

    • Heidi

      the thing that gets me about the manor is that the real count and countess who own the estate, LIVE there whilst filming is taking place! Its so gorgeous, what an honor to be given filming privileges there.

    • Reignbeau

      Got it! Thanks a lot again for hlpegin me out!

  • Maddi

    I’ve seen the first few episodes of this series and it’s one of my favorites in a long time, not just of Masterpiece but just of new series. It’s witty, fun, intense, and unexpected, and the ensemble works beautifully.

  • Christina

    I’ll be watching!

  • Trish

    I already had this scheduled on the DVR, but your mentioning Wodehouse in relation to it has me uber excited! Can’t wait to see it.

  • Britt

    I plan on watching. I was reminded how much I love Masterpiece when PBS showed Sherlock last year. Since then I’ve been watching regularly.

  • Amy

    the recent Bleak House and Little Dorrit

    • MCD

      Bleak House was fantastic!

      • Pepper

        That’s not just the best answer. It’s the bsetest answer!

    • ea

      Thank you for reminding us! Both were excellent– esp Little Dorritt!

  • Amy

    Oh, and the 1985 Silas Marner

  • Briana

    I will be watching! I’ve been waiting all week!

  • beatrice

    The Last Enemy, Prime Suspect, Ms. Marple, the Painted Lady, Flame Trees of the Thicka, Quiet as a Nun, Moll Flanders, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit….oh, so many I can’t remember! I liked the Inspector Lynley Mysteries, all mysteries really and House of Elliott.

  • LM

    Looking forward to it! I have to say I loved last year’s Emma, as well as the 2006 Jane Eyre and the recent Northanger Abbey and Persusasion.

  • amie

    I will be watching for sure, I love Masterpiece Classics, I Netflix the olders ones quite often.

  • film4future

    Of course! But I take major exception with your headline. Bleak House was an incredible series and Little Dorrit wasn’t too shabby either! Let’s also not forget Sherlock and the Jane Eyre starring Toby Stephens. Our Mutual Friend and Wives & Daughters were also exceptional. I could go on and on. Masterpiece consistently puts fantastic programs on air.

    • greg

      He was talking about “original” stories. Those were all literary adaptations.

      • film4future

        Thanks for clarifying! The headline makes more sense now.

      • jmb9y

        Actually, both Prime Suspect and House Of Cards are based upon novels as well.

      • Wynne

        Was Danger UXB an original or based on a book?

  • Rachel

    For the most part I don’t think you can go wrong with anything that ends up on Masterpiece Theatre. My husband and I loved the Sherlock Holmes series. Not sure if they are going to be making more episodes (especially now that Watson has been cast as Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit) but they should it was great.

    • Silk Spectre

      I’m pretty sure they finished the season, not sure yet if they’re picking up the rest in the states.

    • LizP

      There will be a second season – they worked it out so Martin Freeman could come back. Not sure when they are shooting, though.

      • Kameryn

        Stands back from the keyboard in amazement! Tahkns!

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