Brilliant miniseries from England keep on coming: Downton Abbey returns with new episodes this weekend, on the 25th anniversary of the importation of The Singing Detective…
Downton Abbey is presented by PBS, on Masterpiece, unveiling Season 3 beginning Sunday, Jan. 6, at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings). Created and written by Julian Fellowes, it’s very much in spirit with one of the first miniseries triumphs in Masterpiece Theatre history: Upstairs, Downstairs, first brought over from England in 1974.
By that time, American television already had imported other groundbreaking long-form TV from across the Atlantic. CBS struck genre gold with Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner in 1968. Public TV discovered the potential popularity of the miniseries with The Forsyte Saga in 1969, and PBS launched Masterpiece Theatre in 1971 with The First Churchills, while CBS, not PBS, was first to import The Six Wives of Henry VIII that same year.
The appeal, and potential, of the TV miniseries was demonstrated even more with ABC’s Rich Man, Poor Man in 1976, and Roots in 1977. For a while, it was the ambitious, and popular, category of television, pulling more viewers, and more positive reviews, than any other.
Yet the commercial broadcast networks have all but given up on the form, even though such projects as HBO’s John Adams and Band of Brothers keep racking up acclaim and audiences. Downton Abbey is a more substantial and proven hit than any other show from a broadcast network in the past two years — better reviewed, with audience levels rising for each installment, and with an eager fan base catching up to the show on DVD or video downloads.
Season 3 of Downton is the best yet. Shirley MacLaine is a strong and attention-getting addition in the opening episode, but this series does just fine whether she’s there or not. Maggie Smith, as the Dowager Empress, bows to no man, no woman, and no Hollywood guest star. She’s fabulous — as are the intrigues and conflicts, both comic and tragic, that keep the upstairs and downstairs of Downton Abbey humming like a beehive.
(For my full review of Downton Abbey for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, which ran Thursday, visit the Fresh Air website.)
I’m very impressed by Season 3 of Downton, which is more satisfying for being more insular, and confining its many dramas mostly to what happens inside the household. The setting is 1920, but for once, it’s not the headlines that dictate the action. It’s the characters — who, by now, have become increasingly familiar and captivating.
It’s purely coincidental that Season 3 of Downton Abbey
arrives in the States exactly 25 years after Dennis Potter’s masterwork, The Singing Detective,
first was televised on these shores.
It wasn’t broadcast nationally, on PBS or anywhere else — its language, nudity and sexual situations, combined with Potter’s no-cuts clause in his contract, took care of that, even on basic cable. But many local public TV stations were brave enough to show the work — and show, at the same time, what television was capable of.
Twenty-five years after the 1986 production was first shown in America, the first weekend of 1988, I still rank it as the best long-form drama written expressly for television. It’s brilliant.
And American television’s general lack of enthusiasm for the miniseries genre, in the subsequent decades, is the exact opposite of brilliant. It’s idiotic.
And the current enthusiasm for Downton Abbey, no less than its artistic quality, proves we should be embracing, not ignoring, the miniseries form. It’s time American networks admitted that, by giving up on long-form TV, they’ve wandered down the wrong path.
They should be taking the Abbey road.