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Critic's Notebook

'Downton Abbey,' 'Mad Men:' Why the good old days are hot again

Thanks to 'Downton Abbey,' 'Mad Men' and the like, we are once again captivated by not only class and costumes but also by the ability to ponder who we are by examining who we once were.

January 13, 2013|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

The third season premiere of "Downton Abbey" was heralded by the sort of media blitz more in line with the Summer Olympics or a new Robert Downey Jr. franchise than anything appearing on PBS' "Masterpiece." The public television network hosted a red-carpet preview screening for PBS SoCal members aboard the Queen Mary, for mercy's sake. And merchandising for "Downton" threatens to out-deluge that for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," with books and jewelry, mugs and calendars, and T-shirts identifying themselves with one of the Crawley sisters or demanding that authorities "Free John Bates."

"Downton"-themed homeware will soon be available, and this is not a joke. Neither were the Season 3 premiere ratings of almost 8 million, record-breaking for "Masterpiece" and healthy by even Big 4 network standards.

Still, there is something both hilarious and disconcerting about this sudden pash for the posh, especially in a country happy to toss its own upper crusts to the dog — in several essential ways, "Downton" is like "The Real Housewives" gussied up with good writing, great acting and the patina of the past.

PHOTOS: Behind-the-scenes of 'Downton Abbey'

Especially the last. The wild success of "Downton Abbey" has rekindled our on-again, off-again love affair with period drama; not since the halcyon days of "The Jewel in the Crown" and "A Room With a View" have audiences of both big screen and small been so bewitched by the silks and velvets and silver spoons, by calcified codes of honor and dishonor, by carefully caustic wit and tragic silences.

More important, we are once again captivated by the ability to discover who we are by examining, condemning and forgiving who we once were.

At the cinema, the rule of Oscar season this year seems to be "any time but the present," with "Argo," "Lincoln," "Anna Karenina" "Django Unchained," "Les Misérables" and even "The Hobbit" taking viewers on a journey through the ages. But it's television where the times truly are a'changing.

VIDEO TIMELINE: Winter TV shows

"Mad Men," "Downton Abbey," "Boardwalk Empire" — period dramas all — were critical darlings from the moment they debuted. Undaunted by the subsequent failures of "Pan Am" and "The Playboy Club," writers and executives on both sides of the Atlantic remain besotted by the costumes and accouterments, taboos and traditions of ages past.

BBC America's "The Hour" mirrors "Mad Men's" time frame; PBS followed Season 2 of "Downton" with the BBC drama "Call the Midwife," which is set in post-World War II London. BBC America's first original drama, "Copper," is a police procedural set in New York during the Civil War, just as its new "Ripper Street" is set in the months following Jack the Ripper's spree in the 1880s. Just to cover all historical bases, "Spies of Warsaw" takes place between World War I and II; it will debut in February on the channel.

On more post-Colonial networks, the story is similar. Although it may not be surprising that the History Channel's foray into original drama includes men in hats of every era ("Hatfields & McCoys," the upcoming "Vikings"), this season of FX's "American Horror Story" also went back in time, setting its story in a 1960s asylum, with period references including an adult Anne Frank and a grisly version of "The Children's Hour." This month, both FX and the CW go Reagan era with "The Americans" and "The Carrie Diaries," respectively.

PHOTOS: Where the last seasons left off

In February, HBO debuts the much-heralded five-part Edwardian drama "Parade's End," adapted by Tom Stoppard from the novels of Ford Madox Ford and starring current art-house pinup Benedict Cumberbatch, best known for his modern interpretation of that fine Victorian "Sherlock."

"Parade's End" is clearly a shot across the "Downton" bow — Cumberbatch, like others on both shores, has been vocally disdainful of "Downton" creator Julian Fellowes' fondness for sentiment. "Parade's End" is a far less straight-forward work than "Downton" and may give historical drama a new sub-genre: cutting-edge period.

As with any trend on television, some of this is simply the creative cycle of imitation at work. The heart-quickening sheen of "Mad Men" took everyone by surprise, infusing Matthew Weiner's unsentimental evocation of the late '50s with a warmth and glamour impossible to resist. Through characters removed but a generation or two, we could watch our national mores and expectations change, could dissect issues of gender and race, deconstruct the consumer culture and the often lethally sharp line between privacy and secrecy.

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: Try to believe in the new TV season

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