The skyrocketing popularity of the Masterpiece series "Downton Abbey," now in its fourth season, has people who might never have paid attention to a period piece before regularly tuning in on Sunday evenings to catch the latest installment of the soapy drama in early-1900s England. "Downton" is about as hip as a PBS show about repressed British people can get, with product tie-ins, regular blog recapping and magazine spreads on Edwardian-inspired fashion. Even Patton Oswalt live-tweets his reactions to new episodes. (Sample: "I hope they reveal that Lady Mary is Morrissey's great-grandmother.")
It's heartening that a character-driven show with hardly any racy sex, car crashes or explosions can garner such attention. Not that there's anything wrong with those things, but it's nice to be able to talk about a current TV show with buddies at the bar and your Great-Aunt Connie.
But British period programs are nothing new, of course. So if "Downton" has wet your whistle for old-fashioned outfits, crisp accents, high drama, class divides and sexual tension, then here are five other shows—most on Netflix—to tide you over when the next Sunday seems too far away.
"Upstairs, Downstairs," 1971–1975
This BBC classic paved the way for "Downton," with its portrayal of the staff serving the rich Bellamy family in a posh London townhouse. The series opens in 1903, and goes on to cover three decades in five seasons. Every melodramatic plot twist you could hope for is included, from illegitimate babies to political machinations to gay love affairs. It has a soapy, often lighthearted feel, as daydreamy maids, uppity butlers and randy footmen mock each other and their masters. There's lots of shrieking in Cockney accents, too, like: "She couldn't tell a feather duster from a boa constrictor!"
- The Edwardian stink eye
"The Grand," 1997–1998
In a post-WWI Manchester, the Bannerman family endeavors to restore the glory of the lavish hotel they've ran for generations. The show balances the sweet innocence of the hotel's young maids with the lusty shenanigans of the family members. As things roll along, we learn that not all is as it seems: a society dame is actually a brothel madam, a loving brother aims to bed his sister-in-law, and the hotel's finances are a mess. "True Blood" fans will be particularly stoked to see Stephen Moyer (aka vampire Bill Condon) playing the Bannerman's shellshocked son just back from serving the warand we see a shot of his nude rear end in the very first episode.
"Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries," 2012–2013
Miss Phryne Fisher cavorts about Melbourne, Australia in roughly the same time period as "Downton," but the Granthams would undoubtedly be appalled by her fearless first-wave feminist antics. Miss Fisher, a beautiful and wealthy heiress, puts her considerable wit and intellect toward solving murders. The show's soundtrack and fashions are informed by gorgeous Jazz Age influences. Miss Fisher scales buildings wearing heels, tosses aside fur cloaks to chase after bad guys and keeps a gold-plated pistol in her purse. She takes several different lovers throughout the season, too, making for a fun and free-spirited antidote to all these other sexually repressed shows.
"The Paradise," 2012
The Masterpiece miniseries, which aired last year, is based on Emile Zola's novel The Ladies Paradise. The ambitious, handsome businessman John Moray is striving to make his groundbreaking department store a success, and Denise, a clever salesgirl, has some bright ideas—but she'll have to avoid the wrath of Moray's jealous, conniving on-and-off-again fiance, Lady Katherine Glendenning. Shifting sexual mores, the rise of consumer-driven capitalism and emergence of the middle class are the backdrop for the romantic intrigues.
"Call the Midwife," 2012–now
As the series begins, Jenny Lee, a young, wide-eyed midwife fresh out of nursing school, arrives in London's rough and tumble East End to work out of a convent staffed by nurse nuns. Jenny Lee sports a curled bob, impeccable lipstick and wasp-waisted dresses as she deals with quirky colleagues, fist-fighting pregnant women and lots of slimy newborns. Prepare for heartwarming moments, odd humor and painfully outdated medical knowledge. It might make you grateful for 21st century birth control, too.