What To Watch Since Downton Abbey Is Over And I Don’t Want You To Kill Yourself

Mar 12th, 2012 | By | Category: Columns

Well, what the hell are we going to do now?

You’ve watched Downtown Abbey (or Downton Abbey for losers who pronounce words correctly). You’ve watched it because you’ve had no choice. You love it because you don’t know why. Is because you love costume dramas and/or shows from across the pond? Is it because everyone else was watching it and you wanted to see what all the fuss was about? (Don’t worry, you’re very original and special. Just like everybody else.) But all that doesn’t matter now since Season Two of the greatest show EVER is over. (Shows that are actually greater than Downton Abbey: The Wire, Welcome Back, Carter). Now you have at least a whole year before Season Three. This, plus the fact that Fellowes’ Downton Boat won’t premiere until April, means you might as well just sit in the dark and hate yourself.

But wait, period piece slut! There are similar television series’ floating around out there that might distract you until Downton comes back on air in 365 days and we can all secretly hate Mr. Bates’ chin and daydream about how hot Siobhan Finneran is in real life and wonder if Lord Grantham will ever get a cat and name him Antiquity. OMG there’s not enough Downton Abbey paper dolls to cover my bedroom walls with to get me through!!

But let’s try. Let’s try. And if it doesn’t work we’ll hold each other later, next to our Mary and Matthew Crawley life-sized cardboard cutouts. Just let me finish this “Downton Abbey Personality Quiz.”

I got “Groom of the Stool.” Jerks!

Alright, so I spent a very long time compiling this list (fifteen minutes) to give you over 120 hours of period piece delight. That means 7200 minutes of distraction from how boring Lady Sybil and Branson are. (Fellowes should get an award for making an Irish revolutionary as exciting as a pillow case someone farted in). I made sure each drama had four components to make them worthy to the glorious glory-hood of Downton:

1) The show has to be an ensemble piece, that is, story arcs for different characters. That means no singular storyline about a main character. So if you email me stating that I forgot to include Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South, I will tell you to shut the hell up. (If you email me stating I forgot Patrick Swayze’s North & South, I will tell you hell yeah.)
2) The show has to be engrossing. “Engrossing” can mean just “purely excellent” (I Claudius) or “Shit, it’s like a car crash and I can’t look away.” (The Grand)
3) I will update this list at will at any time in the future if I damn well feel like it. But I will probably never add Forsyte Saga because all you need to know about it, you can read here.
4) I sort of lied about number one, since one of these suggestions is not an ensemble piece. But you will still shut the hell up.

I, Claudius (miniseries, 13 episodes, one hour each)
Year: 1976
Starring: Siân Phillips (Jonathan’s perfect woman), Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, Patrick Stewart and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies)

When you saw the film Radio with Cuba Gooding Jr. did you wonder what it would be like if that amazing most perfect movie about a man who overcame his personal challenges took place in Rome 24 BC? That’s what I, Claudius is about. And what I mean by “about” is just the last four words of that first sentence. Psych.

Based on Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and Claudius the God, this miniseries is about the unlikely rise of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus to emperor of Rome. I, Claudius is one part HBO’s Rome and 3/4 old school soundstage, which means that the modern viewer has to deal with echoing dialogue and sets made out of Styrofoam by the local bridge club. But the miniseries more than makes up for that slight drawback with a twisty-turny plot and more backstabbing than an annual sorority meeting. Audiences love Downton Abbey for the characters, and I, Claudius has characters. This miniseries spans over decades of political intrigue, assassinations, romance, power struggles, orgies and incest. Oh yes, there always has to be incest. You’ll be drawn in by Sian Phillips as the glorious bitch Livia and Derek Jacobi’s multifaceted presentation of Claudius, thought by his family as a bumbling idiot, but who reveals himself to have a shrewd and brilliant mind. There are good guys (Brian Blessed’s well intentioned Augustus) and bad guys (John Hurt’s elegantly insane Caligula) to root for as well as plenty of naked boobs and butts. You better start upping your game, Downton.

The Grand (two seasons 18 episodes, one hour each) Incomplete
Year: 1997
Starring Baby Stephen Moyer (Vampire Bill), Guest Stars Baby Michael Sheen and MRS. PATMORE (Lesley Nicol)

From 1997-1998, Russell T Davies (Touching Evil, Queer as Folk) wrote what he described as a “1920s melodrama in a big hotel.” Unlike Fellowes, Davies freely admitted the similarities between his show and the original Upstairs Downstairs. The Grand focused on the lives, loves and loss of the owners of The Grand hotel in Manchester and the people who worked for them. It is similar to Upstairs Downstairs in that respect, but the characters who walk the halls of this hotel will seem very familiar to a Downton fan.

All our old friends are here: the kind-hearted lord of the manor, the do-gooder housemaid, the staunch and classy butler, the retired prostitute.Okay, maybe that last one is a bit of a stretch, but The Grand has a fair amount in common with Downton Abbey, as well as the joy of seeing Baby Stephen Moyer and guest star Baby Michael Sheen in Season One. (Note: Stephen Moyer plays the son of Mr. and Mrs. Bannerman, which is weird. I can’t wrap my mind around Moyer playing the son of anyone, because he was hatched from a seductive space egg fully grown and ready to mack.)

The 18 episodes of this show are engrossing, if not a bit off-kilter. While both the upstairs and downstairs cast of characters of Downton are equally intriguing, it’s obvious that the meat of the story rests with the people that work in the hotel. There’s incest, adultery, murder and mistaken baby identity. What there’s not a lot of is humor, which might be a result of Davies writing each episode predominately on his own with only a limited amount of time to go to film. While The Grand certainly has a “can’t-stop-watching” aura of only the finest soap opera, it sinks under its own premise, like an angel food cake weighed down with rocks. The show also suffers from “Now You See Me Now You Don’t” syndrome, in which main characters are introduced and play a major role for most of the series and are then rushed off or never mentioned again, such as Mr. Bannerman’s mother. Still, it’s worth a watch, if only for seeing Stephen Moyer sob over a hooker.

Michael Sheen’s reaction shot after watching all 18 episodes of The Grand.

Berkeley Square (one season, 10 episodes, one hour each) Incomplete
Year: 1998
Starring Hermione Norris and Rosemary Leach

A show “before its time,” which translates to “this show was awesome and you assholes canceled it too early,” Berkeley Square was set in 1902 and focused on three women and the families they worked for in Berkeley Square. It only aired for one season, but it’s the closest in quality and storytelling to that of Downton while retaining some good old mistaken baby identity, adultery and a man getting punched to death. There’s also precocious children! And who doesn’t love that? Well, me, but I’m a monster.

What is most enjoyable about this series is the three main characters. Matty, the tough as nails city girl, Hannah, the free-spirited Irishwoman hiding a dark secret and Lydia, the village girl with a heart of gold. All three are instantly likable. Okay, Hannah is a selfish jerk with the most ridiculous plotline of the three, but the other storylines are strong enough to get you through her idiocy and tiresome “can’t be tamed!” attitude.

Band of Brothers (miniseries, 10 episodes, one hour and ten minutes each)
Year: 2001
Starring Handsome Ginger Damian Lewis, Office Space Superstar Ron Livingston, Donnie Wahlberg (really?) and one-hot-minute apperances by Michael Fassbender, Colin Hanks and James McAvoy

Band of Brothers is a docudrama about Donnie Wahlberg’s attempt to rejoin his boy band group. No wait, that’s terrible.

Band of Brothers, produced by Bosom Buddies star Tom Hanks, tells the story of Easy Company, a parachute infantry regiment during World War II. Now, I’m not that into war movies, I’m more like the general populace who believes in peace and serial killers. However, I gave this miniseries a shot and I was instantly engrossed by its historical detail, realistic characters and courageous heart. Band of Brothers reminds me of the Old Days of films, when valour and honor were the commonalities of a hero (I still love you Clint Eastwood, you sex beast).

Even if Band of Brothers isn’t your typical “period piece” of swooning corseted ladies and men with pocket watches (stricken with ennui), you should still give it a try because it has won a shit-ton of awards and your friends will be so impressed by your taste–until you start rambling on about your fanatical love for The Only Way Is Essex.


The Way We Live Now (miniseries, 4 episodes, one hour and ten minutes each)
Year: 2001
Starring: David Suchet, Young Adult Cillian Murphy, Éowyn (Miranda Otto), Anne-Marie Duff (The Virgin Queen), Matthew Macfadyen and Shirley Henderson

Adapted from Anthony Trollope’s novel by Andrew Davies, this story centers on Augustus Melmotte, a financier with a mysterious past and the people around him. It’s a simple premise, like Dickens’Bleak House, but like Bleak House it becomes far more complicated. The Way We Live Now is beautifully costumed and beautifully acted by the likes of Cillian Murphy and Forever Young Shirley Henderson. This series is also often humorous and funny, which sadly cannot be said about this paragraph. Thank God I found video of Matthew Macfadyen scenes scored with the song “Hit Me Baby One More Time” to put things right:

Bleak House (miniseries, 15 episodes, hour long first episode and 30 minute episodes)
Year: 2005
Starring: Gillian Anderson, Ian Richardson, Anna Maxwell Martin, Newborn Carey Mulligan, and thousands upon thousands of other well-known established British character actors and actresses who you will recognize from the Harry Potter franchises Coronation Street and/or Doctors.

OMG it’s Scully and she’s wearing taffeta! And a bunch of other people with last names like Smidleriff and Piddlersbiti and Smirnoff and Baileys (some of these names are incorrect). Bleak House, adapted from the Charles Dickens novel by Andrew Davies (who wrote the classic 1995 Pride and Prejudice and the recent classic (for other reasons) The Three Musketeers) starts out simply: it’s about Gillian Anderson looking fierce in period piece costumes and staring out of rain-stained windows. It’s also about the unresolved will of Jarndyce v Jarndyce and the people seeking its inheritance. The web becomes even more tangled with an unsolved murder and a cast of characters raging from comedic relief to maudlin (that would be Gillian Anderson again).

A main criticism of Dickens was his inability to produce multi-dimensional characters. Frankly, I think his strongest attempt is in this novel, which also served as a soapbox on a host of social issues (Dickens was all about The Big Message). What is also excellent about this version of Bleak House is the presentation of episodes as only 30 minutes each, a homage to Dickens original presentation of his novels through monthly installments.

And if none of that appeals to you, there is also a guy who looks like this:

Aw yeah, monocole be pimpin.

The Virgin Queen (miniseries, 4 episodes, one hour each)
Year: 2005
Starring Anne-Marie Duff (The Way We Live Now), Baby Tom Hardy (shorn like a lamb)

Forget The Tudors and Jonathan Rhys Myers’ finely polished ass. The Virgin Queen is arguably one of the best television adaptations of the Tudor dynasty since Elizabeth R. Yes, it breaks the rule of the “ensemble” piece, but it’s educational. Downton fans love educational! If you are intrigued by the process of ironing newspapers than you will also be interested in knowing if Elizabeth the I did or did not bang Robert Dudley. Oh, also the whole woman in power in a patriarchal society blah blah blah Tom Hardy half-naked, woooooooo!

Lillies (one season, 8 episodes, one hour each) Incomplete
Year: 2007
Starring Adult Stephen Moyer

This short-lived series about a family living in Liverpool in 1920 was written by Heidi Thomas (Cranford and the new Upstairs Downstairs aka THE RETURN OF EILEEN ATKINS), the show was an even blend of melodrama and humor, as well as realistically portraying the working class after the First World War. Like The Grand, Lilies focuses on the after-effect of a damaging war, as well as social inequality, women’s suffrage and Adult Stephen Moyer’s right to get his creep on.

Cranford (miniseries, 5 episodes, one hour each)
Year: 2007
Starring Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Greg Wise (Emma Thompson’s husband, that lucky skank), Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and MR. CARSON (Jim Carter)

Cranford, (The Judi Dench Hour) is delightful and heartbreaking. In fact, it’s a promise that you will be sobbing and laughing equally while watching this show, confirming your schizophrenia. The five part series is about a small idyllic town in 19th century England and its inhabitants who are forced to reconcile its identity with the slow encroaching of the modern world. Be sure to check out Return to Cranford (aka the Cranford Christmas Special) for Michelle Dockery (LADY MARY). And Tim Curry?


Lark Rise to Candleford (4 seasons, 40 episodes, one hour each)
Year: 2008-2011
Starring Julia Sawalha (Cranford), Claudie Blakley (Cranford), Burn Gorman (Bleak House) and MR. BATES (Brendan Coyle)

Lark Rise to Candleford is so adorable it makes me dry-heave. So I freely admit that I only managed to get through the first season because by the Christmas special I was hacking like Gollum. But this column isn’t about me, dear reader, it’s about you and trying to fill the hole Downton has left in your heart. And honestly, Lark Rise to Candleford is a better option to fill that void than say, heroin, so here we are.

If you’ve ever seen Anne of Green Gables or Avonlea, Lark Rise to Candleford will seem all too familiar. It has the same quaint village and motley crew of cute characters, but nothing really bad happens, and everyone is pretty much good and kind, if just misunderstood from time to time. It’s like living in Disney Town or having Stolkholm Syndrome (go with whichever one gives you less spinal tremors).

Anywhore, Lark Rise is about young Laura Timmins who is perfectly sweet and nice, leaving the small comforting town of Lark Rise to Candleford (surprise!) to go work for her forward thinking sassy cousin Dorcas Lane. Adventures happen! One of these adventures includes a star-crossed love affair between Dorcas and Sir Timothy Midwinter. I am all about star-crossed love, which is why I’ve written so many love letters to my parole officer that he refuses to answer. (That just makes me want you more, Officer Daley!)

So, if you want to immerse yourself in meet-cute couples and Very Serious Problems that are solved within one episode (i.e. all of Season Two of Downton Abby) give Lark Rise a spin.

The Thorn Birds

Hahaha, just kidding!

Here are some other recommendations that might also not follow my stringent qualifications, but they’re here now so whatever just enjoy them and shut up.

Brideshead Revisited
The Buccaneers
Daniel Deronda
Edward the King
Murder Rooms: The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes
The Pallisers
Pride and Prejudice
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Wives and Daughters


Eileen refuses to suggest the original Upstairs Downstairs because that’s too easy. And the only thing easy at Defenestration HQ is Andrew.

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