Treasures From Across The Pond: The Best of British TV (Part One)

Happy New Year everybody! How did you all enjoy the holidays, did you have fun with the family or are you glad it’s over? I didn’t get to enjoy the holidays because I caught the flu and I was sick the entire time, which is a bummer. But I suppose it could be worse. At least it’s just the flu, right? 🙂

Of course being sick during the holidays is definitely not fun, mostly because it’s also winter hiatus for my favorite TV shows (in the exception of Chuck this year, but that’s only because it’s the final season and NBC is just anxious to get it out of the way, I suspect) and I have nothing to watch. At first I busy myself with the Binky International Film Festival, but then the series was over and I still had nothing to watch. So I did what I always do in times like this, I turn to the internet for research on great shows I haven’t had the chance to watch for various reasons (mostly because my TV schedule is already insane to begin with). I’m still not interested to give Game of Thrones a try (apologies, fans, but somehow I find epic tales like this hard to get into. I’m the only nerd who’s not into Lord of The Rings, after all), so instead I decided to try two British series that the internet have been raving about but I haven’t had time to try: Downton Abbey and Sherlock. And am I glad that I did, because even though Hollywood has churned out some of the best TV shows of all time – the Brits sure know how to make quality series. Their seasons are shorter, their lifespans are often shorter – mostly three or four seasons, only a few really popular ones get more than five – but they are often excellent series, and their quality usually remains consistent to the end.

Today and tomorrow, I want to talk about these two excellent British shows that I managed to watch during the Winter Hiatus, both of which have become my newest obsession. I’ll start with Downton Abbey, which will air its second season in the US this Sunday. If you haven’t seen this charming show, do catch up on its first season this weekend (it’s doable, there are only 7 episodes) so you can get right into the second season when it airs on Sunday. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

I have heard about the charms of hit British drama Downton Abbey for some time now, it has been talked about quite frequently on NY Magazine’s Vulture blog and twitter is quite chattery about this show as well (Patton Oswalt, Gillian Jacobs and Yvette Nicole Brown from Community even did a hilarious twitter reenactment once). But I already had a hard time trying to watch all the American shows I’m watching, I decided to just wait for the DVDs to come out. On the last week of December, while I was still coughing and sniveling non-stop, I decided to devour the first and second season in the space of a weekend, and now I’m jonesing for the new season to start. Why does British TV take such long breaks anyway? I’m sure there are Brits who watch TV as obsessively as I do?

The appeal of Downton Abbey is simple, it’s a period or “genre” drama, it’s set in the late Edwardian era, and it follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family, of the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their three grown daughters, as well as their servants (which includes a butler, valet — not the kind that parks cars–, housekeepers, footmen, housemaids, cook, kitchen maids, chauffer, etc). It’s a well-written, well-acted “upstairs/downstairs” soap opera, and it’s addictive as hell. Created by Gosford Park’s Julian Fellowes, this series was an instant hit on both sides of the Atlantic, averaging 10 million viewers in the UK (which is massive for UK TV standard, by the way) and a cool 6 million viewers in the US, which means this show – airing on PBS – has higher ratings than anything in the CW, including its hit shows like The Vampire Diaries or America’s Next Top Model. I mean, PBS isn’t exactly the cool kids channel. I don’t think people even watch PBS until Downton Abbey comes along, you know, except for the Ken Burns documentary.

After watching a few episodes of Season 1 (or Series 1, as the Brits would have it), I tweeted that this show is like Gossip Girl, if it were very well-written and steered clear of ridiculous plots. At the heart of it, Downton Abbey is very much a soap opera, something that even Hugh Bonneville, who plays the Earl of Grantham, concurs – but unlike most soap operas that tend to be way too dramatic to a fault, Downton Abbey chooses to be more grounded, opting for historical accuracies instead of wildly unbelievable plots that most soaps are known for. Even their slightly unbelievable plot, the one where a Turkish diplomat dies while having sex with Lady Mary, turns out to be a true story, according to its creator and writer Julian Fellowes. A soap opera that show self-restrained in the ridiculous department is very, very rare, and that’s why Downton Abbey is as popular as it is both in the UK and US: this is what we TV viewers have been craving for all this time.

Of course another appeal of this show is that it’s also very, very entertaining. My favorite character is Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by the one and only Dame Maggie Smith, naturally. Not only does she have the best lines (her infamous one is of course, “What is a weekend?”), she’s also hysterical without trying too hard. No wonder Maggie Smith nabbed the Best Supporting Actress in A Mini Series last year, she is definitely the best thing about this show that’s already full of so many wonderful things.

The second season was criticized in the UK for being too soap-y and overly dramatic but seriously, in my opinion, it’s still excellent. Don’t listen to them haters. Yes, it is a bit more dramatic and soap-y than the first season. And there are several plots that veered a little too much on the dramatic side, but so what? Even when Grey’s Anatomy was still good (first and second season), it’s way more soap-y and dramatic than this show ever could be. And the second season was worth the watch if only for the romances! From the angst-y “will you two just get together already?” entanglement of Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley to the sweet but problematic romance of Mr. Bates and Anna, there is no shortage of squee worthy moments in season two, and let’s face it, those moments are the reason why we love television in the first place, right?

UK viewers and those of us who don’t live in the UK but have gotten hold of the second season through wildly nefarious means will have to wait with bated breath for the third (and possibly final) season set to premiere some time in October (or is it November? Not sure) this year, which means we have to suffer withdrawal for at least ten months before we get our fix again. But if you live in the US, I highly recommend you turn on PBS this Sunday night and watch the second season. Better yet, follow comedian Patton Oswalt on twitter (@pattonoswalt) and watch it with him. He promises to live-tweet the episode this Sunday. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

I’ll see you back here tomorrow for my review of another delightful (and popular) British series, Sherlock. Until then!

xoxo

Binky Bee

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