I'd never presume to say how the period British miniseries became the go-to cultural comfort food for so many women of my generation, but Mr. Darcy's Oscar acceptance speech from earlier in the year may offer some clues, particularly the part about "impulses I have to tend to backstage."Behind the Green Baize Door was, at one point, to be the title of Upstairs, Downstairs, the 70s ITV show revived last winter by the BBC for a three-episode run just concluded here on PBS's Masterpiece, beloved importers of the original; the point, I think, of these closed doors and drawn stage curtains is that sumptuous formality seems to imply a core of catharsis.
The cast of this new Upstairs, Downstairs includes one returning member, Jean Marsh, who created the show with Eileen Atkins, finally appearing on the show in a dowager battle-axe role to rival her Gosford Park co-star Maggie Smith's turn on ITV and Masterpiece's recent Downton Abbey, from Gosford Park's screenwriter Julian Fellowes. Both Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey (as well as, say, Mad Men) appeal to our tendency to fetishize a time and place by constantly threatening us with its disappearance. The gathering storms of world war hover over both shows—WWI for Downton, WWII for Downstairs (and the prospect of a defunded PBS troubles both). And the English class system is upended as spoiled youngest daughters cavort with politically active chauffeurs, though that subplot's more realistic in Upstairs, Downstairs, which gratifyingly acknowledges the fashionable Fascism of much of the prewar upperclass (including some quarters of the royal family, a point glossed over in Colin Firth's performance-anxiety movie).
If Downton Abbey is the superior show of the two—and it most certainly is, even Laura Linney's intros for the PBS broadcasts are better, less strident—it's not just because the new Upstairs, Downstairs compresses more melodrama into a smaller cast and less than half the running time. Julian Fellowes is far savvier than the new Upstairs, Downstairs team about the rules of the game that have developed since the original series. The premise of Downton Abbey is predicated upon the arrival of an interloper—the jokes that result, about the codified manners of the manor-born as seen from outside, flatter our familiarity with the genre, which gives Fellowes the cover he needs to tend to our backstage impulses. Downton Abbey's upper lip is perpetually a-tremble with anguished confessions, shrieky monologues, tearful hugs, and exquisite romantic masochism on the level of Barbara Stanwyck's guilt-stricken self-abnegations in The Lady Eve or Remember the Night—more than Upstairs, Downstairs, with its naked appeals to historical and nostalgic resonance, Downton Abbey is a perfect mechanism of tension and release.