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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.