Okay – a bit of an unusual Richard Recommends this time around…

Yep, my latest TV addiction isn’t actually currently showing here in the States. It’s Britain’s new Sunday night period drama Downton Abbey – and seriously guys it’s terrific!

As you all know, I can be quite snobby when it comes to British TV in general (too many soaps in prime time, bad sitcoms, confused network brands) but for me Downton Abbey is EXACTLY the kind of show the UK does terrifically well. It’s classy, smart, beautifully acted – and thanks to the magic of the internet I’ve been able to keep up with every magnificent minute from 5,000 miles away. I suggest you do the same – unless you would rather be stuck watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Exactly.

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In a nutshell Downton Abbey is Upstairs Downstairs with better production values…

The series is set in 1912 and revolves around Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) who lives in a huge Edwardian manor house with his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and three daughters – Mary, Edith and Sybil. There’s also Robert’s mother Violet, played by the wonderful Maggie Smith in full on bossy matriarch mode.

But there’s a problem for the family. Cora’s money was bequeathed to Robert as part of her dowry and because the couple has three daughters none can technically inherit the family money (this is 1912 remember!) without special circumstances. Robert’s original choice of heir has just gone down with the Titanic – and the next in line to the family fortune is a distant cousin called Matthew, a modern thinking lawyer who together with his mother look set to shake up the stuffy family traditions…

Meanwhile there’s drama behind the scenes too! Robert’s family employs a veritable army of housekeepers, footmen and valets including the formidable Housekeeper Mrs Hughes, the sweet natured Head Housemaid Anna, scheming maid O’Brien, treacherous footman William and new recruit, wounded war veteran Mr Bates.

Each character is vividly painted and beautifully played – and the show has a very modern feel, despite being set almost 100 years ago. William for example, is a closeted homosexual with a penchant for blackmailing rich gentry who come calling at his master’s estate. It’s refreshing to see a primetime, older skewing drama featuring same sex kisses – and not even eliciting a murmur of criticism (one more way that Brit TV differs from the US!)

I also love how Downton Abbey doesn’t take the obvious route with its characters – all of whom are layered and surprising (well except for Maggie Smith who is basically playing the same old Maggie Smith role!) It would have been very easy to paint the rich characters as unsympathetic and the servants as righteous but Downton avoids any such stereotypes. Mrs Hughes is sharp-tongued but also sympathetic (there was a very touching moment in episode 1 in which she wondered if life has passed her by). Matthew rebels against his new wealth, but is also trying to fit in. And father figure Robert is a good man trying to do the best in difficult circumstances.

Downton is written by Oscar winning writer Julian Fellowes, the man behind Gosford Park, and you can tell in the quality of the scripts that this is a class act all round. What’s most heartening about the show is how it’s been scoring such terrific ratings in the UK, averaging – and sustaining – 8 million viewers for the series first three episodes (to be fair the show does inherit a huge audience from The X Factor). These would be good figures here in the US – but for a country with just 60 million people – it’s remarkable…

Speaking of America – I have no idea if or when Downton Abbey will be coming to our shores… often these shows get shuffled away on PBS with little fanfare. But I actually think Downton would be a great pick up for History or AMC – tonally the show actually shares a lot in common with Mad Men (multi-layered characters, changing times, intelligent scripting etc). But while you wait for US networks to figure it out, do yourself a favor and get downloading… a show this good deserves to be seen…