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The costume dramas that put PBS and AMC on the map, and HBO’s music-driven show.
Impeccably if accidentally timed to surf The King’s Speech nostalgia wave, the class-conscious Edwardian soap Upstairs, Downstairs returns to PBS on April 10, along with this 40th anniversary collection of the original series, on sale March 29. The new show is set in King Bertie’s day, 1936, so you’ll need to catch up on the original, which starts in 1903 when a flighty new maid (Pauline Collins) joins the steadier head parlour maid (Jean Marsh, also a star of the new show) at the posh Bellamy home at 165 Eaton Place, London.
Like King’s Speech, Upstairs, Downstairs was a show nobody seemed sold on until it startlingly hit big. But with a pilot episode penned by housekeeper’s daughter Fay Weldon (inspired by novelist Henry Green’s masterpiece Loving) and a killer cast, the show conquered the world: An alleged 1 billion people watched it. It made Marsh an Emmy-winning eminence and Masterpiece Theatre a massive brand. It’s 57 hours long, not counting making-of docs, star interviews and 24 chatty, insightful commentaries.
Why is it still addictive 40 years on? You can’t beat the dramatic value of income inequality. “Those upstairs had the power,” Weldon notes. “Those downstairs kind of occupied the moral high ground.” The show was “halfway between stage and film,” Marsh says, with 10 days’ rehearsal per episode and amazingly long takes because cuts were pricey and rationed. They don’t make them like this anymore. (Acorn, $199.99, or $49.99 per series)
Mad Men: Season 4
They don’t make Mad Men like they used to either — and that’s good because early seasons could be slow and plot-parsimonious. But in Season 4, it’s 1964-65, and all hell is breaking loose. Things get so wild, there’s even a brief zoom shot 22 minutes and 28 seconds into Episode 1 — a first in technically repressed Mad Men cinematography.
But Mad Men retains its maniacal period punctiliousness, which creator Matt Weiner, Jon Hamm and others meticulously explicate in commentaries. The extras on the evolution of divorce and the Ford Mustang are interesting, but the commentaries are what’s riveting because every tiny detail of acting and period flavor has a fascinating meaning that fits into the big picture. When Don Draper contemptuously predicts Jantzen’s timid 1965 ad campaign, it’s the actual one. “I didn’t just pull that out of thin air,” Weiner says. Few TV DVDs reward obsessive fans like Mad Men: Season 4 does. (Lionsgate, $49.98)
Treme: Season 1
Few, that is, except Treme. David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s dazzling, ambling New Orleans-after-the-flood show is as rigorously fact-based as Weiner’s, and it’s fun to hear them explain the real-world sources of what you see. People who think Steve Zahn’s character Davis is too improbably ornery should know there’s a bar with a sign: “If you’re Davis Rogan, leave now.” It’s also great to click a button and see every tune and artist pop up on TV’s most-obscure-great-music-intensive show and to hear Simon and Overmyer describe the fine points of Melissa Leo’s Treme acting, subtler and better than what won her an Oscar. “Melissa is always thinking about everything,” says Simon. Treme makes you think, and feel like funkin’ it up. (HBO, $59.99)
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