The third season premiere of "Downton Abbey" was heralded by the sort of media blitz more in line with the Summer Olympics or a new Robert Downey Jr. franchise than anything appearing on PBS' "Masterpiece." The public television network hosted a red-carpet preview screening for PBS SoCal members aboard the Queen Mary, for mercy's sake. And merchandising for "Downton" threatens to out-deluge that for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," with books and jewelry, mugs and calendars, and T-shirts identifying themselves with one of the Crawley sisters or demanding that authorities "Free John Bates."
"Downton"-themed homeware will soon be available, and this is not a joke. Neither were the Season 3 premiere ratings of almost 8 million, record-breaking for "Masterpiece" and healthy by even Big 4 network standards.
Still, there is something both hilarious and disconcerting about this sudden pash for the posh, especially in a country happy to toss its own upper crusts to the dog — in several essential ways, "Downton" is like "The Real Housewives" gussied up with good writing, great acting and the patina of the past.
Especially the last. The wild success of "Downton Abbey" has rekindled our on-again, off-again love affair with period drama; not since the halcyon days of "The Jewel in the Crown" and "A Room With a View" have audiences of both big screen and small been so bewitched by the silks and velvets and silver spoons, by calcified codes of honor and dishonor, by carefully caustic wit and tragic silences.
More important, we are once again captivated by the ability to discover who we are by examining, condemning and forgiving who we once were.
At the cinema, the rule of Oscar season this year seems to be "any time but the present," with "Argo," "Lincoln," "Anna Karenina" "Django Unchained," "Les Misérables" and even "The Hobbit" taking viewers on a journey through the ages. But it's television where the times truly are a'changing.
"Mad Men," "Downton Abbey," "Boardwalk Empire" — period dramas all — were critical darlings from the moment they debuted. Undaunted by the subsequent failures of "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club," writers and executives on both sides of the Atlantic remain besotted by the costumes and accouterments, taboos and traditions of ages past.
BBC America's "The Hour" mirrors "Mad Men's" time frame; PBS followed Season 2 of "Downton" with the BBC drama "Call the Midwife," which is set in post-World War II London. BBC America's first original drama, "Copper," is a police procedural set in New York during the Civil War, just as its new "Ripper Street" is set in the months following Jack the Ripper's spree in the 1880s. Just to cover all historical bases, "Spies of Warsaw" takes place between World War I and II; it will debut in February on the channel.
On more post-Colonial networks, the story is similar. Although it may not be surprising that the History Channel's foray into original drama includes men in hats of every era ("Hatfields & McCoys," the upcoming "Vikings"), this season of FX's "American Horror Story" also went back in time, setting its story in a 1960s asylum, with period references including an adult Anne Frank and a grisly version of "The Children's Hour." This month, both FX and the CW go Reagan era with "The Americans" and "The Carrie Diaries," respectively.
In February, HBO debuts the much-heralded five-part Edwardian drama "Parade's End," adapted by Tom Stoppard from the novels of Ford Madox Ford and starring current art-house pinup Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for his modern interpretation of that fine Victorian "Sherlock."
"Parade's End" is clearly a shot across the "Downton" bow — Cumberbatch, like others on both shores, has been vocally disdainful of "Downton" creator Julian Fellowes' fondness for sentiment. "Parade's End" is a far less straight-forward work than "Downton" and may give historical drama a new sub-genre: cutting-edge period.
As with any trend on television, some of this is simply the creative cycle of imitation at work. The heart-quickening sheen of "Mad Men" took everyone by surprise, infusing Matthew Weiner's unsentimental evocation of the late '50s with a warmth and glamour impossible to resist. Through characters removed but a generation or two, we could watch our national mores and expectations change, could dissect issues of gender and race, deconstruct the consumer culture and the often lethally sharp line between privacy and secrecy.
All that and sweater sets and Danish modern too. Suddenly, network execs realized that sets, costumes and props were just as seductive as characters. Around the same time, the HBO miniseries "John Adams" set a new standard for historical detail, down to the ghastly process of early smallpox vaccinations. Watching period dramas, we began to feel a bit smarter; sure, some of the characters display an oddly modern understanding of psychology, but how instructive to be reminded of this era's lack of sanitation or that era's literal outlawing of homosexuality, the symbolic restriction of undergarments across the ages, the careful monitoring of social divisions. (The only thing that remains unchanged is the prostitutes, who show up with alarming regularity in dramas of all time frames, including this season of "Downton.")
Period dramas are inevitably set during times of social change, which instantly lends even the most soapiest story line a quasi-academic gravitas. High-def-increased production values and the general migration of film talent to television combine to create alternative worlds curated to museum-like quality. Bathed in evocative light with every trouser crease pressed, every slop pot splattering just so, these shows transport us to moments made critical by the issues roiling within — the bondage of social bylaws and expectation, the fear of new technology, the desire to cling to old ways even when the new seem so tantalizing.
And inevitably, the horror of war. After a decade of contemporary warfare, perhaps the most telling aspect of this current crop of period dramas is its almost universal analysis of the inevitable and irrevocable effects of battle. War hangs over the denizens of Downton Abbey and Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce alike, has damaged the main characters of "Copper" and "Boardwalk Empire" just as it did the titular "Hatfields & McCoys." The First World War occupies much of "Parade's End," changing both man and mores, while "The Hour" and "The Americans" deal with Cold War paranoia.
Time proves both a prism and a buffer in dealing with such painful topics, limning what may have changed — our knowledge of and sympathy for the psychological effects of war — and what has not — the amputated limbs, the fractured psyches.
The past gives us different threads with which to spin versions of the present, but it also allows us to tell stories that we have made technologically archaic. Like the post-apocalyptic tales that are also increasingly popular these days, period drama reminds us what life was like when a tablet referred to the original stones on which the Ten Commandments were written, when people communicated by letter and personal visits, both of which were often ill-timed to suit the needs of great drama.
Miscommunication is the cornerstone of both tragedy and comedy, and we have spent the last century obsessed with perfecting our methods of communicating. Would Romeo and Juliet have died if they had been able to text? "took poison. up soon. bring me a frap no whp. xoxo. J"
Even putting the digital revolution aside, our level of social equality, though wonderful in reality, removes many a dramatic obstacle, just as our overabundant personal discourse allows little room for the sort of misunderstandings that kept so many epic love stories unconsummated. Nowadays, Edith Wharton's heroines would simply get jobs, say what they mean, either marry the guy or not and move on unconcerned about personal compromise. Modern drama is more often created by too much information than a lack of it.
A fine thing, perhaps, in reality. But a world where Hannah Horvath of "Girls" has completely replaced Lily Bart of "The House of Mirth" would be a sad one indeed. Because, as period drama reminds us about so many things, we could not have one woman without the other.