Tuned In: 'Downton Abbey' revisits the British class system
As a new year begins, viewers will be hard-pressed to find a more sumptuous, engaging drama than the "Masterpiece Classic" miniseries "Downton Abbey" (9 p.m. Jan. 9, 16, 23 and 30, WQED).
The first new program in the 40th season of PBS's "Masterpiece," the four-part "Downton Abbey" (90 minutes each week) brings to mind the classic "Upstairs, Downstairs," which has been remade and will air in April. Like that classic television event, "Downton Abbey" concerns both the masters and the servants, this time set in a British country house circa 1912.
Although it bears some hallmarks of past Edwardian-set costume dramas -- a fussbudget, well-heeled grandmother (Maggie Smith) who declares, "I hanker for a simpler world, is that a crime?" -- this fantastic new story by writer Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park") also strays from the expected. In "Downton Abbey," there's a surprising familiarity and sometimes even a sense of friendship between the staff and the family.
"Masterpiece" host Laura Linney explains the story's setup: Kindly and devoted Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) must ensure the continuation of Downton Abbey, which becomes complicated when two potential male heirs go down with the Titanic. Grantham's oldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery, "Return to Cranford"), is a prickly, independent-minded woman with a superiority complex that does not allow her to accept the man her father has in mind, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).
But Mary makes some serious missteps (particularly for that era) that she confides in her mother (an empathetic Elizabeth McGovern) but must keep secret from all others. That could prove a challenge given the gossiping among the servants. They gripe when Lord Grantham hires an Army friend with a bum leg (Brandan Coyle), one of the few kindly staff members of the house. Most are complainers and plotters, most notably Thomas (Rob James-Collier), a selfish, soulless cad.
There's much drama to be had in "Downton Abbey" but also a lot of humor, most of it courtesy of Ms. Smith. Her character is as unfamiliar with the concept of a "weekend" as she is with respectable men who are employed. She also offers somewhat callous remarks that may explain where granddaughter Mary gets her cool, aloof personality.
"One can't go to pieces at the death of every foreigner," the Dowager Countess of Grantham says. "We'd all be in a state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper!"
"Downton Abbey" ends at the outbreak of World War I without much resolution for its many characters, so it's worth noting that a sequel is in development.
If period dramas are not your viewing pleasure, not to worry, there are dozens of other new and returning series coming to broadcast and cable in the next few weeks, including:
• "Wild Kratts" (5 p.m. weekdays, WQED, starting Monday): A new animated kids' series premieres with some familiar PBS child stars at the helm. Brothers Chris (always in a green shirt) and Martin (always in blue) Kratt, from the series "Kratts' Creatures" and "Zoboomafoo," get animated for "Wild Kratts."
Why do a nature show in animation? It's less expensive than live action, and Martin Kratt said there are also creative reasons.
"With animation we can showcase some of the coolest things animals do and kids would be most excited about and show it just the way we want to do it and share those [animal] behaviors we know exist but are impossible to film," he said. "That was the genesis of us turning into animation."
Each episode of the series, targeted at ages 6 to 9, will open and close with a live-action segment featuring the Kratts.
"We also found that it was more challenging to get kids in this age group to watch live action," Chris Kratt said. "There's a magnetic attraction to animation."
He said there are pros and cons to each style. Animation gives the brothers more control over the stories, but within the animation, they will sometimes include live-action footage.
Also on WQED, "Electric Company" moves to 5:30 p.m. weekdays and "BBC World News" moves to 11:30 p.m. weekdays on WQED's Create channel.
• "Live to Dance" (8 p.m. Tuesday, CBS): Former "American Idol" judge Paula Abdul returns to prime time as mentor and "lead expert" in this new reality competition.
• "Bob's Burgers" (8:30 p.m. Jan. 9, Fox): Funnier than expected, the pilot for this animated comedy follows Bob (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), a burger restaurant owner, and his family of oddballs, including a cloying wife and strange children. In the first episode, Bob's Burgers gets put on notice by the health inspector and a rumor spreads that Bob seasons his burgers with human remains.
• "The Cape" (9 p.m. Jan. 9, NBC): For anyone who's seen a superhero show before, there's nothing new in this latest iteration about a cop-turned-vigilante crime fighter. Move along. (Regular time slot 9 p.m. Monday starting Jan. 10.)
• "Episodes" (9:30 p.m. Jan. 9, Showtime): Matt LeBlanc returns to prime time playing a version of himself -- a washed-up TV star who gets put into a new series for which he is wildly inappropriate (an erudite school headmaster). "Episodes" is a pretty funny show, even if its jabs at Hollywood dealmakers are old hat.
• "Shameless" (10 p.m. Jan. 9, Showtime): Perpetually drunk dad Frank Gallagher (William H. Macy) leaves it to eldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum) to run the household in Showtime's version of a family drama.
• "Let's Stay Together" (11 p.m. Jan. 11, BET): A married couple, an engaged couple and a single woman make up the cast of this scripted comedy, BET's first since 2008's short-lived, well-regarded "Somebodies."
• "Lights Out" (10 p.m. Jan. 11, FX): A retired boxer (Holt McCallany) juggles family life with his doctor-in-training wife and three daughters as the siren song of the ring woos him back following financial misfortune. "Lights" is another solid drama entry from FX.
• "Off the Map" (10 p.m. Jan. 12): If "Grey's Anatomy" doesn't offer enough of a mix of medical drama and melodrama, perhaps this series from the same producers will fit the bill -- but only if you enjoy preposterous scenarios.
• "Being Human" (9 p.m. Jan. 17, Syfy): An unnecessary remake of the 2-year-old BBC America series of the same name. On the plus side, if you haven't seen the original, this is better than 90 percent of the original programming Syfy puts on the air these days.
• "Harry's Law" (10 p.m. Jan. 17, NBC): Another legal drama from writer/producer David E. Kelley ("Boston Legal," "The Practice"), this one stars Kathy Bates as Harriet "Harry" Korn, a patent lawyer-turned-criminal defense attorney. In early episodes it's not as much fun as "Boston Legal" -- the characters don't have the same crackling chemistry as Denny Crane and Alan Shore -- but the legal arguments and political jabs have the same zesty sting.
• "Retired at 35" (10:30 p.m. Jan. 19, TV Land): Thirtysomething guy moves in with his retired parents in their Florida home after he quits his 24/7 job. Generation gap jokes ensue.
• "Perfect Couples" (8:30 p.m. Jan. 20, NBC): NBC aired a sneak preview of this unfunny comedy about three couples earlier this month. Ratings were tepid.
• "Fairly Legal" (10 p.m. Jan. 20, USA): A litigator (Sarah Shahi)-turned-mediator solves disputes while navigating a complicated personal life. The pilot moves at a fast pace, and Ms. Shahi is likeable enough in this drama that does not stray from USA's "blue sky" formula.
• "Onion News Network" (10 p.m. Jan. 21, IFC): Two of the three episodes sent for review are hilarious, no-holds-barred parodies of cable news and modern media culture.
• "Portlandia" (10:30 p.m. Jan. 21, IFC): Fred Armisen ("Saturday Night Live") and Carrie Brownstein (the rock band Sleater-Kinney) play a variety of characters living in Portland, Ore.
• "Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?" (9 p.m. Jan. 25): Joan and Melissa Rivers allow cameras to document them living together.
• "Working Class" (8 p.m. Jan. 28, CMT): Ed Asner stars as a cranky neighbor in CMT's first original sitcom about a single mom (Melissa Peterman, "Reba") who moves her family to an upscale suburb.
ABC's "The Bachelor" is back in more ways than one: It's a do-over edition with previous bachelor Brad Womack back for a second try at manufactured love at 8 p.m. Monday. ... The aliens-in-disguise of "V" re-enter TV orbit at 9 p.m. Tuesday. ... "American Idol" (8 p.m. Jan. 19 and 20, Fox) introduces new judges Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez and its first Simon Cowell-less season. ... "Parks and Recreation" (9:30 p.m. Jan. 20, NBC) finally rejoins prime time after a too-long absence. ... Genealogy buffs will once again ask, "Who Do You Think You Are?" (8 p.m. Jan. 21, NBC).
Sci-fi dinosaur show "Primeval" returns on BBC America at 9 p.m. Saturday. ... ABC Family's "Pretty Little Liars" and "Greek" return Monday at 8 and 9 p.m, respectively. ... Syfy's "Caprica" ends its run with five previously unaired episodes (6-11 p.m. Tuesday), including a finale that offers a surprising amount of closure and made me wish I hadn't given up on the slow-moving series halfway through its run. ... TNT debuts the third season of "Southland" at 10 p.m. Tuesday. ... "Are We There Yet?" returns with new episodes Wednesday (10 and 10:30 p.m., TBS). ... MTV revisits "Jersey Shore" (10 p.m. Thursday). ... TLC ushers in the new year with new episodes of "Say Yes to the Dress" (9 p.m. Jan. 7) and "Four Weddings" (10 p.m. Jan. 7).
David Duchovny is up for another round of Showtime's "Californication" (9 p.m. Jan. 9). ... BET revives canceled sitcom "The Game" (10 p.m. Jan. 11), producing new episodes. ... Comedy Central's "Tosh.0" returns for its third season at 10 p.m. Jan. 11. ... The final season of "Big Love" kicks off at 9 p.m. Jan. 16 on HBO. ... "White Collar" (10 p.m. Jan. 18, USA) cons its way into a new season. ... "Hot in Cleveland" (10 p.m. Jan. 19, TV Land) promises more Betty White banter. ... The doctor is in again at "Royal Pains" (9 p.m. Jan. 20, USA). ... A prequel re-introduces viewers to "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" (10 p.m. Jan. 21, Starz). ... Playboy Playmate Holly Madison shows off more of "Holly's World" (10:30 p.m. Jan. 23, E!). ... FX's warped animated comedy "Archer" (10 p.m. Jan. 27) takes aim for a second season.
Coverage from the Television Critics Association 2011 winter press tour kicks off next week with multiple blog posts each day in Tuned In Journal beginning Wednesday. Print coverage starts on Thursday.
WPXI will air a retrospective on semi-retiring sports director John Fedko during the Winter Classic post-game show this weekend. Mr. Fedko will return to Channel 11 next fall for Skylights coverage. ... Sunday's episode of CBS's "Undercover Boss" (9 p.m., KDKA-TV) follows Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Kevin Sheehan, and he gets a lesson in rappelling from Norwegian crew member and Pittsburgh native Jessica Barnes. ... WQED will rebroadcast four Rick Sebak food specials Thursdays at 8 p.m. in January: "Breakfast Special" (Jan. 6), "Sandwiches That You Will Like" (Jan. 13), "Pennsylvania Diners and Other Roadside Restaurants" (Jan. 20) and "An Ice Cream Show" (Jan. 27). ... Comcast's Xfinity continues to make local troop greetings available in the "Get Local" section of OnDemand through the end of January. ... DirecTV and Hearst, which owns Pittsburgh's WTAE, have reached agreement on terms for retransmission consent renewal, so no DirecTV viewers will lose access to Channel 4. A previous deal was due to expire tonight.
First Published December 31, 2010 12:00 am