PASADENA, Calif. -- Before anyone had heard of "Downton Abbey," which aired on PBS's "Masterpiece: Classic" to great acclaim from critics and viewers in January, the return of 1970s franchise "Upstairs Downstairs" was expected to be the big hit of the 2011 "Masterpiece" season.
"Downton" may have taken some of the wind out of the "Upstairs Downstairs" sails, but that doesn't mean there's diminished entertainment value in this sequel series. It's just on a smaller, more intimate scale.
"Upstairs Downstairs" introduces fewer characters and story lines, but it does have the benefit of an ending. ("Downton" just stopped, but new episodes are in production for airing next year; a second "Upstairs" season is being developed in England but as of yet it has no American outlet.)
The new "Upstairs" gets off to a somewhat slow start in the first of three one-hour installments (9 p.m. Sunday, and April 17 and 24, WQED-TV), but in its second and third episodes the dramatic engines rev as the political climate of the day begins to drive the story.
Decades before "Downton," "Upstairs Downstairs" first told the stories of an aristocratic family (the "upstairs") and their servants (the "downstairs") through 68 episodes set at 165 Eaton Place. PBS viewers last saw the inside of that home when the series finale aired in May 1977 with parlormaid Rose Buck (Jean Marsh, "Sense and Sensibility") tearfully locking up the Bellamy residence, which had been sold, and walking away.
Rose, again played by Ms. Marsh, returns in the new "Upstairs," and she rejoins the staff at 165 Eaton Place with a promotion to housekeeper. The year is 1936 -- just six years after the original series ended -- and a new family moves into the old Bellamy home, which is filled with cobwebs from lack of use.
There are many moments to love in "Upstairs Downstairs," including the snobbery that afflicts the servants as much as their employers. Cook Mrs. Thackeray (Anne Reid) sniffs at the notion that her new employers are "practically self-made," a negative in her mind compared to past employers who passed wealth down through the generations.
Lady Agnes Holland (Kelley Hawes, "MI-5") and Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard, "Any Human Heart") are back in London after Hallam's foreign office posting in Washington, D.C. Much to Agnes' surprise, Hallam's mother, Maud (Eileen Atkins, "Cranford"), arrives, bringing with her a monkey and an Indian servant, Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik).
Ms. Atkins' grand dame is quite different from the Maggie Smith dowager duchess in "Downton." Maud is still superior and judgmental -- she left Tangiers because, she said, "It was full of the British wintering and that sours a place like nothing else" -- but more eccentric in her behavior and more practical in her beliefs.
Among the servants, butler Mr. Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough) proves himself a hero while footman Johnny Proude (Nico Mirallego) and chauffeur Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson) are more troublesome. Maid Ivy Morris (Ellie Kendrick, "The Diary of Anne Frank") offers a motherly touch in episodes two and three.
This new "Upstairs, Downstairs" debuted to strong ratings in England over Christmas, and Ms. Atkins, who conceived the original "Upstairs Downstairs" series with Ms. Marsh, sees "Downton Abbey" as "a fantastic warm-up act" for the new "Upstairs Downstairs."
Ms. Atkins and Ms. Marsh came up with the idea for the original series after becoming engrossed in "The Forsyte Saga" in the late 1960s, which dwelled on the "upstairs" half of the equation.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a series about the downstairs people?" Ms. Atkins said at a PBS press conference in January, recalling the inspiration for "Upstairs Downstairs." "Originally it was just going to be about downstairs, wasn't it? And then we realized you couldn't have downstairs without upstairs. And so we had to let the rich people in."
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of PBS's "Masterpiece," said the original "Upstairs" series was initially rejected by PBS because it was not an adaptation of a classic. But 1970s-era "Masterpiece" producers eventually picked up the show, and "Upstairs" became one of PBS's biggest-ever hits.
Although Ms. Atkins developed the idea for "Upstairs Downstairs" with Ms. Marsh, Ms. Atkins never appeared on the original program. At the time production began, she was in a play in London and she had additional theater commitments for the next two years.
"This is a sacrilegious thing to say in Los Angeles," Ms. Atkins confessed after January's PBS press conference, "but I do prefer [working in] the theater. It's a terrible thing to say. But now I'm old, and I quite like filming, but when I was young I just wanted to be in the theater."
After the original series became successful, she never signed on because the success would have led to her playing the same part for several years.
"That would have killed me," she said, acknowledging there were "endless" offers to create a role for her on the original series. "I didn't want to go in."
For the new series, Ms. Atkins wanted to play a downstairs staffer because, she said, "the downstairs characters are always the most popular," but producers insisted Ms. Marsh remain downstairs with Ms. Atkins upstairs.
"Because I gave in, they allowed me a lot of input in my part. What we did in the end was very different from what had been originally conceived," she said, noting that in an early draft of the script the character was more like the Maggie Smith character in "Downton." "I knew what [screenwriter] Julian Fellowes would write for 'Downton Abbey' and I said we've got to get right away from it."
It was Ms. Atkins who suggested her character have an Indian servant and Ms. Marsh who came up with the idea of a pet monkey.
"I'm now very happy to be in it," she said. "I love my part. Now, because I was allowed to [have input], I want to go on playing her."
Several cable series debuted last week, and all of the shows did pretty well. AMC's "The Killing" drew the most viewers -- a welcome development because it was most deserving of success among the new programs -- with 2.7 million viewers tuning in, making it AMC's second strongest series premiere behind "The Walking Dead," which drew more than 5 million viewers.
Starz's "Camelot" had an audience of 1.1 million viewers, about on par with "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" in January. Showtime's "The Borgias" drew 1 million viewers, better than the already renewed "Shameless" in its January debut. "The Kennedys" miniseries on ReelzChannel had 1.3 million viewers.
The new series are included in the Post-Gazette's annual Keep or Cancel? poll. Vote now at post-gazette.com/tv.
"Law & Order: Los Angeles," now titled "Law & Order: L.A.," returns to NBC's prime-time schedule with back-to-back episodes at 9 p.m. Monday. Read a review Monday in Tuned In Journal. ... HBO's "True Blood" debuts its fourth season June 26, and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage" return with new episodes on July 10 and 24, respectively. ... After a terrible Howie Mandel-hosted special last week, Fox has ordered eight episodes of "Mobbed," a one-hour reality show featuring staged flash mobs. ... In last week's column I said Fox renewed "Fringe" for the 2010-11 TV season, but what I obviously meant to type was that the show was renewed for next season, the 2011-12 TV season. ... PCNC will run an encore of the one-hour documentary, "What Does Trouble Mean? Nate Smith's Revolution" tonight at 9. Mr. Smith, 82, activist and former leader of the Black Construction Coalition, died March 31. ... Heaven help us: Oxygen renewed the unwatchable "Hair Battle Spectacular" for a second season. ... Bounce TV, a network designed to be carried on local stations' digital sub-channels with programming targeted at African-American viewers ages 25-54, aims to launch this fall but no carriage agreements have been announced. ... WQED will air "The Life of Maurice Goddard" (8 p.m. April 14), a biography of the founding Pennsylvania Secretary of the Department of Environmental Resources, who held that post from 1955-79.
Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "Detroit 1-8-7," "$#• ! My Dad Says" and Patrice King Brown. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on OWN's "Kidnapped by the Kids," Comedy Central's "Workaholics" and Showtime's "Gigolos." Read online-only TV content at post-gazette.com/tv.
This week's podcast includes conversation about "Body of Proof," "The Killing," "Camelot" and Hines Ward on "Dancing With the Stars." Subscribe or listen at post-gazette.com/podcast.
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.