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Imported Miniseries Offer Maxipleasure – ‘Downton Abbey’ Now, ‘Singing Detective’ Then
January 4, 2013  | By David Bianculli  | 4 comments

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.

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This isn't the first time that I've seen a Best Bet that I wanted to watch that didn't show up in my on-line guide. I finally found it by scrolling through the days coming up and using a different PBS channel than I usually watch. I've tried the PBS site without better luck. The Beatles wasn't listed on either their site for my area, or my online guide. I finally found the Beatles movie and documentary some other way. I recorded both but when I checked my recording it was instead a Pledge for PBS. I'm quite frustrated with both PBS and my provider. PBS needs to do better at making it easier for people to find out what is airing in their area. And providers need to add shows to their online guide. Why am I writing this here? At one point instead of, "check local listings", on this site, it was also a link that took me straight to some PBS site that worked for my area. I was thrilled! Is there any way to add that link back in? Thank you.
Jan 4, 2013   |  Reply
If your able to add that link back in even once (!) I promise to bookmark it for future reference. I'm sure part of the problem is me but until I figure out what to do about it, I'm at a loss and like others have mentioned PBS is one of the very best. I don't want to be weeping for all the wrong reasons.
Jan 4, 2013
David Marlow
I can tell you where my family and I were living at the time based solely on what was on Masterpiece Theater, from Danger: UXB to The Citadel to The Flame Trees of Thika. Imagine a kid and his family (and at least one dog) sitting down to watch television and eat popcorn dad made, where you're immediately transported to WWII London, or colonial Africa, stories so well-told and riveting (and in spite of ourselves, educating) that you forget to go get the one bottle of Pepsi you're allowed to have with your popcorn because you don't want to miss a minute. The Sunday nights of my youth.
Whatever anybody else does, PBS simply does it better. And to this day I can't hear the original Masterpiece Theater theme without weeping instantly. Thanks a lot, PBS! But could you at least cut back on all that doo-wop music during pledge drives?
Jan 4, 2013   |  Reply
Okay, I would also recommend "Edge of Darkness" with Bob Peck--the BBC version, NOT the American one with Mel Gibson; "Piece of Cake"--about World War II British flyers; "Foyle's War"--also World War II; "Life on Mars"--the British original with John Simm, not the American remake; "MI-5"--haven't seen them all yet, but I like what I've seen so far; and "Summer Heights High" --this last is Australian, I think, and maybe you have to have taught middle school and high school kids to really get it, but it's brilliant. All of these are very, very different from "The Singing Detective," but they do stick with you.
Jan 4, 2013   |  Reply
Thank you for the movie suggestions. I haven't seen most of them, yet! I do avoid American remakes if possible, as it's very rare when they even come close to the British originals.
I also enjoyed reading about your childhood memories of watching these shows. Popcorn, Dad, and PBS movies on a Sunday evening. What more could one want? Expect maybe that Pepsi!
Jan 4, 2013
Marlow - (And we assume it isn't THE Philip Marlowe...) DB and TVWW were all over (and down on) The Prisoner remake here: http://www.tvworthwatching.com/post/The-Prisoner-Remake-Not-Worth-the-Wait-Or-the-Time.aspx and here: http://www.tvworthwatching.com/post/Appreciating-Patrick-McGoohan-His-Prisoner-Was-Number-1.aspx --EG
Jan 4, 2013
David Marlow
Then you'd probably better avoid the remake of The Prisoner, if you haven't already.
Jan 4, 2013
Always glad to see you mention "The Singing Detective" with Michael Gambon--NOT the American remake. What a great show! I luckily happened on it on PBS and videotaped it, and it was riveting. Made me a fan of Michael Gambon for sure.

And the British do seem to do a wonderful job on miniseries. Right now I'm very much enjoying "Call the Midwife" and am looking forward to season 2. But there are a couple of other British miniseries that I'm going to have to mention later (because I can't remember the exact titles) that I also really, really love. I will do so shortly.

And good to see the good review of season 3 of Downton Abbey. I shall look forward to it.
Jan 4, 2013   |  Reply
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