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(L-R): Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith Crawley), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley), Jessica Brown-Findlay (Lady Sybil Crawley) are among the cast of "Downton Abbey."
(L-R): Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith Crawley), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley), Jessica Brown-Findlay (Lady Sybil Crawley) are among the cast of "Downton Abbey."

Leah McLaren

Why my favourite Brit TV shows are playing well across the pond Add to ...

There are times in life when you long to get out of the house, meet strange people, experience the world and have wild, irresponsible adventures. And then there are times when you just want to sit at home with a DVD box set, gnawing freezer-burnt pizza and contemplating no question more complicated than the following: “Should I watch one more episode now or save it so I have a good reason to get out of bed tomorrow?”

Previous columns by Leah McLaren

The right answer, of course, is always “Watch it now.” Reasons to live are a dime a dozen, but deliciously lazy TV-soaked nights can be perilously thin on the ground in your thirties (a.k.a. the decade of doing everything).

It is for this reason that I’ve allowed myself to be consumed as of late by two newish British period dramas, The Hour (BBC) and Downton Abbey (iTV), both of which are now taking North America by storm (on BBC America and PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, respectively – as well as through the aforementioned box sets, available on Amazon.ca). Both have been renewed for a second season.

It’s no wonder the Brits can’t get enough of this stuff. Britain is a nation obsessed by its own history, after all. But that both series have been so warmly embraced in the parochial and inward-looking United States is a bit more surprising. Cranky critics over here maintain the worlds depicted in each (an idealized aristocratic past; the rough ’n’ ready early days of television) never really existed in the first place. But perhaps it’s this tendency to idealize the past (an American affliction if ever there was one) that explains how well these two period dramas translate in America.

Downton Abbey, created by Gosford Park and The Young Victoria writer Julian Fellowes, distinguished itself at the Emmys earlier this week, winning an impressive four awards (from 11 nominations). On both sides of the pond, the show is a solid hit, and for good reason: It is the most accomplished and compelling period costume drama in quite a while to come out of a country known for its costume dramas.

The fact that it was made by upstart iTV, rather than Britain’s traditional purveyor of such corseted fare (the venerable BBC), has resulted in a half-serious campaign of rancour against it in the UK. There have been gossipy tabloid headlines about Fellowes’s legendary snobbery. (He is said to be “positively incensed!” his wife was recently denied a title to an earldom because she is a woman). Meanwhile, a popular YouTube spoof of the series stars Kim Cattrall.

Anyway, never mind. Downton Abbey is absolutely scrummy, as the Brits would say. The saga begins on the eve of the First World War, just after the Titanic’s been sunk, and with it the heir to the manor of the show’s title.

“Who will inherit Downton?” is the central question at work in the series. (Some of the finer legal minutiae of British succession law have apparently been trimmed from the U.S. version so as not to bore our neighbours to the south. Canadians, I suspect, would relish such pedantic, monarchist trivia. Oh well). The show sets about answering the inheritance query through a magnificently complex web of upstairs/downstairs plotlines that will ring familiar to fans of Gosford Park.

On the surface of it, Downton Abbey has little in common with The Hour. But, in fact, the two share important characteristics that contribute to their excellence and ability to transfix. Both offer an absorbing world that is entirely apart from our own, yet is utterly believable. Both are graced with excellent performances by formidable actors who ooze sexuality, longing and ambition below their buttoned-down exteriors. And both – this bit is crucial – are set against a moment in history in which the world teeters on a major precipice.

In the case of Downton, this is obviously war (part of the second season takes place in the trenches). In The Hour – the story of a group of BBC journalists running a groundbreaking current-affairs show in the fifties – we have the Suez Crisis, which many regard as marking the unofficial end of British colonial dominance, and the rise of the United States as a superpower.

The Hour is carried by an office love triangle between the three central journalists (the most recognizable of which is Dominic West, of The Wire fame, though reverting to his natural posh British accent) and positively drips with visceral sexual tension, driven by the characters’ crackling intelligence, something that’s strangely absent in the show to which The Hour is compared to most: Mad Men.

Like its American cousin, The Hour is big on smoking, drinking and wisecracking secretaries; every other shot seems to have some office gal or other hips-swivelling her way down the hall in a delectable pencil skirt. But it’s more densely packed – people get stabbed by men in trench coats quite a lot – and the look is damp and grotty London mid-century rather than the smooth patina of Mad Men’s postwar-boom Manhattan.

It’s ironic, in a way, that Britain seems to be taking back the trans-Atlantic drama dial by chronicling the demise of its colonial past. But of course that’s part of the appeal of the period drama: being able to see the future, when the characters you’ve fallen in love with cannot. My kingdom for one more episode of both.

Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

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