Ellen Gray: Fans of period dramas will love 'Downton Abbey'

Hugh Bonneville is Robert, the Earl of Grantham, and Elizabeth McGovern his American wife, Cora, in "Masterpiece Classic's" four-piece miniseries "Downton Abbey."
Hugh Bonneville is Robert, the Earl of Grantham, and Elizabeth McGovern his American wife, Cora, in "Masterpiece Classic's" four-piece miniseries "Downton Abbey."
Posted: January 06, 2011

MASTERPIECE CLASSIC: DOWNTON ABBEY. 9 p.m. Sunday, Channel 12.

THE WINTER TV season kicks into high gear Sunday as NBC, Fox and Showtime all premiere new shows, some of them more than watchable.

So why am I recommending you at least set a DVR for PBS that night?

Because "Masterpiece Classic" is marking its 40th anniversary with the premiere of the four-part miniseries "Downton Abbey," a made-to-order classic from "Gosford Park" writer Julian Fellowes that's likely to hit the sweet spot for anyone who loved "Upstairs, Downstairs," "Cranford" or any production of "Pride and Prejudice."

Set in England and spanning the period between the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the beginning of World War I - a second installment, already in the works, will presumably deal with the war - "Downton Abbey" stars Hugh Bonneville ("Notting Hill") as the Earl of Grantham, a decent man trying to do right by the people who depend on his large estate for their livings and his own three daughters, who, like the Bennett girls in "Pride and Prejudice," stand to be left out in the cold when he dies, the estate being entailed to a distant cousin. Elizabeth McGovern plays his American wife, an heiress whose money has been tied to the estate as a condition of the marriage, and Maggie Smith his mother, who's determined to break the entail.

Downstairs, there's intrigue, too, with a secretive but sympathetic valet (Brendan Coyle), a Machiavellian footman (Rob James-Collier) and a ladies' maid (Siobhan Finneran) who drips poison.

It's quibbling to say that it feels at times as if "Downton Abbey" had been custom-designed for those of us for whom period romance is mother's milk, studded as it is with plucky heroines, accidental heirs and scheming dowagers, with just enough history thrown in to make the melodrama seem highbrow. It's not, really, though. It's simply delicious fun

Found in translation

Some fun is also happening on Showtime on Sunday, and, no, I'm not talking about the return of "Californication."

At 9:30 p.m., Bala Cynwyd's David Crane ("Friends") and Jeffrey Klarik ("Mad About You") unveil "Episodes," their first joint TV project since making "The Class" for CBS a few seasons back - an experience Klarik later described as making him feel like "a puppy in a dryer" - and wouldn't you know it, it's about a husband-and-wife writing team (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) who see their beloved series put through the wringer by clueless network suits.

That the writers are British and are being asked to adapt their cerebral U.K. hit for an American audience proves topical, given that "Episodes," which was also made for the BBC, will be followed at 10 by the Showtime premiere of "Shameless," a U.S. adaptation of a British show about a surprisingly functional dysfunctional family, led, or at least (mostly) begotten by, a falling-down drunk.

I've only seen one episode of the British original, which seems capable of inducing horrified hilarity in a population that actually pays license fees to own TV sets and might well do the same for people who pay for Showtime in hopes of seeing things CBS could never get away with.

In Showtime's seemingly unwatered-down version, William H. Macy plays the drunken dad, Frank Gallagher, convincingly enough that you can almost smell the alcohol (along with less-pleasant scents) seeping from every pore. (Other highlights include Joan Cusack as an agoraphobic homemaker whose life's about to change and Emmy Rossum as Fiona, the oldest of Frank's daughters.) But if the fictional network execs portrayed in "Episodes" had been casting "Shameless," Macy, one of the best actors working today, might have lost the part to Matt LeBlanc.

Strange as it sounds, they might have done worse.

Because while "Episodes" mines Hollywood absurdities for dependable laughs, it's LeBlanc, playing himself, or more accurately, a character who shares his name and résumé, who elevates the seven-episode first season above simple parody as the actor forced down the writers' throats. He might even be the most interesting character in the show.

Can't say I saw that coming. But if Crane, who co-created "Friends," feels any lingering guilt for saddling LeBlanc with a one-note character (and, OK, many, many millions of dollars), I'd say this looks like amends.

As for "Shameless," whose creator, Paul Abbott, is behind some of the best TV to come out of Britain in the past 15 years - "State of Play," "Reckless" and "Touching Evil," to name a few - well, it plays like the bastard child of NBC's "Parenthood" and FX's "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." And it tends to favor the FX side of the family.

If your first encounter with the Gallaghers doesn't drive you screaming into the streets, prepare to fall in love.

'The Cape,' 'Bob's Burgers'

NBC tiptoes back into the world of superheroes Sunday with a two-hour premiere of "The Cape" (9 p.m., Channel 10), which stars David Lyons as a cop trying to clear his name while reinventing himself as his son's favorite superhero.

Set in a comic-book city where police work's been privatized and it's the arch-villain (James Frain of "The Tudors"), not the hero, who's the rich guy with the secret identity, it's lighter than "Heroes," but also less coherent. Still, fans of Summer Glau (you know who you are) probably won't be able to resist.

I've yet to make it past the first couple of minutes of "Bob's Burgers" (8:30 p.m. Sunday, Channel 29), Fox's latest foray into animation. Maybe it's just that it's set in a restaurant, but when the first two jokes turned out to involve farting and crotch itch, I lost my appetite for more.

As always, your mileage may vary. Let me know if I should give it another shot.

Ellen Gray (graye@phillynews.com) is attending the Television Critics Association's winter meetings in Pasadena, Calif. For updates, see go.philly.com/ellengray, follow @elgray on Twitter or join her weekly chat with Inquirer TV critic Jonathan Storm at 11 a.m. today: www.philly.com/tvchat.

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