Upstairs Downstairs

The second series of Upstairs Downstairs debuts tonight as part of the Masterpiece! Classic series on most PBS stations at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain, but you should check local listings.

The second series of the revived Upstairs Downstairs picks up almost three years after the first series left off, and throws out a handful of changes in the opening moments. Series one ended with the birth of the first Hallam child, and series two picks up days after the birth of the second—a fact that is easy to miss if you don’t pick up on the mention that the birth was a difficult Caesarean (the first child came relatively easy; the butler delivered it). That’s just the start of the changes upstairs, though: Maud, the elder Lady Holland, has passed on, and now resides in an urn next to her husband on the fireplace. In her place, we get her younger, wackier sister Blanche Mottershead (Alex Kingston). Sir Hallam’s sister Pamela (Sarah Gordy) has also come home to live.

Downstairs, there are two new servants, the kitchen maid Eunice (Ami Metcalf) and nursery maid Beryl (Laura Haddock). There are also two gone: housemaid Ivy (without explanation) and, more importantly, the housekeeper (and sole returning member from the cast of the original Upstairs, Downstairs) Rose Buck (Jean Marsh) is gone, due to illness. That’s all revealed in the first five minutes of the first episode, along with a fair bit of historical detail that sets the stage for the main story, and it’s a lot to absorb in that time. Over the course of the episode… well, it doesn’t get much easier as plot developments continue at a breakneck pace while arguably the most momentous event in the pre-history of WWII unfolds on screen.

That event—the negotiations between Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain that ultimately resulted in the disastrous Munich Agreement—is the focus of tonight’s episode, which sets the pace for the rest of the series. The events leading up to World War II drive a majority of the overarching plot, and even most of the B-plots are driven by the spectre of war. In many ways, the season plays out like the early chapters of WWII History For Dummies, interweaving important milestones into every episode to varying degrees. After tonight’s relatively deep dip into the Munich Agreement, events like Kristallnacht and the Nazi-Soviet Pact play a role, sometimes as background chatter, sometimes woven deeply into the plot. By the closing credits of the final episode, war has just been declared, at least a third of the characters have been drafted into the military or civilian war services, and the first air raid sirens are beginning to sound.

That structure occasionally strips focus from the character moments and the soapy melodrama that make these kinds of shows irresistible to so many fans, especially in the first episode. Thankfully, it mostly takes a backseat once the early stage setting is out of the way. That leaves plenty of time for the sudsy elements: A character’s lesbian affair is both revealed and rekindled by the release of a torrid novel written by her lover, for example, or a Rocky-esque boxing story complete with feel-good victory ending. Affairs, abortions, alcoholism, multiple secrets from the past, and even the death of a monkey all get thrown into the mix in fine soap fashion. It’s all a little more lurid than the relatively understated realism of, say, Mad Men, but it is handled with considerably more skill and realism than your average daytime soap. What’s important is that it all more or less works, although some of the plot twists feel forced and/or out of left field.

It helps that the characters are well-drawn overall. Early on, too many of the denizens of 165 Eaton Place, especially the new ones, have too little to do, and the character moments they do get feel shoehorned in and rushed. The scene where the new nursery maid blurts out the story of her mother’s suicide, and receives little more than an awkward reaction shot from the chaffeur before the show moves on, is a prime example. It’s the kind of development that could have an impact, if we knew her at all at that point and it was given the time such a weighty revelation deserves. This is at its worst in the première, which feels cluttered and busy in way that the first series’ episodes, even at their most overstuffed, never did. Later episodes unfold at a much less forced pace, although it’s still hard not to wonder what the show might have done with a typical American 13-episode order, covering the same ground the series is forced to cover here in six.

If any character is given short shrift, it’s Lady Agnes (Keely Hawes). She’s certainly given plenty of story time, but her character is two-dimensional to an absurd degree. She’s written as a relentlessly good and moral woman whose worst failing is a tendency to be a nearsighted and self-involved. The scene where she’s dressed down for the servants’ living conditions by a representative from the Girl’s Friendly Society and reacts by essentially apologizing and promising to make everything better rang false. No anger? No self righteousness? Not even some entirely reasonable defensiveness? She comes off as saintly to a fault in all but one instance, and it hurts both her character and the overall integrity of the show. Her husband, Sir Hallam (Ed Stoppard) is drawn as a much more flawed character, a man who knows what’s right and yet too often just allows himself to be dragged along by others' whims. Perversely, it makes him not just a more interesting character, but also a more sympathetic one, which can’t have been the intent.

There’s also the issue of the show losing its two best characters—who happened to be its strongest tie to the original series. Eileen Atkins’ Lady Maud Holland and Jean Marsh’s Rose Buck were the lynchpins of the first season, both as actors and as characters, and their absence is deeply felt in the first few episodes. Once the new characters settle in, it’s less of an issue, but it’s hard not to imagine how much better the season might have been if they had returned.

Overall, while the season falls short of what the first promised, it’s a rewarding ride all the same. For Americans, the peeks into British class consciousness are particularly fascinating, and the World War II history lesson might even be enough to pull in the History Channel set. It’s a soap opera through and through, but a smart, sophisticated soap, well-staged and well acted, and it has enough depth that you don’t have to feel bad about watching it. It’s not going to mount a serious challenge to Downton Abbey for the title of Best British Period Soap, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun in its own way.

Stray observations

  • Now that I’ve seen a proper English butler performing CPR on a monkey, I can cross that off my bucket list. Finally!
  • It’s always nice to be reminded that with a thick enough accent and some unfamiliar slang, English can sound like a completely foreign language.
  • It was probably wise to eventually write out the monkey. Even Friends realized that it’s hard to include a monkey as a member of your cast without quickly descending into novelty and slapstick.
  • The use of period music is generally strong, but the syrupy strings and maudlin piano of the score is way too heavy handed.

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