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compare and contrast

Can the New Upstairs Downstairs Fill the Downton Abbey Void?

For the British-period-drama enthusiast, 2011 has already been quite a good year, thanks to Masterpiece Theater's airing of the wildly successful British import Downton Abbey. The Edwardian mini-series, created by Gosford Park writer Julian Fellowes, hit all the Merchant Ivory sweet spots — a sweeping estate! Questions of inheritance! Topiaries! — with a healthy dose of (very proper) sex and violence. Downton's cliffhanger ending left many fans desperate for more. Thankfully, Masterpiece’s next marquee event is the reboot of seventies classic Upstairs Downstairs (Sunday, 9 p.m.). Despite the fact that Downton was modeled on the original Upstairs, the Upstairs sequel doesn't quite compare to Downton: It's clear the three-episode, nostalgia-heavy remake wasn't built to compete with its high-budget spawn. Upstairs' plots are too easily resolved, the servants are less sympathetic, and 165 Eaton Square is no Highclere Castle. Still, for the bereft among you, there are plenty of similarities and small joys to fill the Downton-shaped hole in your heart. Consider these points:

Major historical events (that you’ve heard of) take absurdly unlikely personal tolls on both the families and the servants.
Downton wastes no time in playing the Titanic card — the ship sunk, and so did our heir! Cue the drama! Upstairs doubles-down with a joint abdication/World War II plot. Downstairs, we get a sad and serious Jewish refugee plot; upstairs, the man of the house takes a lot of stressful diplomatic meetings with German officers, and there's an obligatory Wallis Simpson cameo. (Did the historical Mrs. Simpson only wear stripes? Why do movies always dress her in stripes?)

The awesomely saucy, imperial grandmother still rules the house (and gets all the best lines.)
Maggie Smith, as noted previously, stole Downton Abbey with her buggy eyes and ignorance of the “weekend” concept. Eileen Atkins, as Maud, Lady Holland, plays a slightly dottier version of Smith’s domineering mother-in-law — but what Maud lacks in sternness she makes up for with … a pet monkey! (Bonus: Solomon the pet monkey lusts after maraschino cherries and definitely wears a fez at one point.) Even better, while Downton's Cora seldom deserved the condescension she received from Smith, Upstairs' flighty Lady Agnes almost always has a smackdown coming. "Rearrange the words in this sentence: door stable bolted after horse." Ha.

It's easy — and fun! — to hate on the bitchy younger sister.
Sympathetic souls will argue that Downton’s Lady Edith was provoked into her betrayal; lesser beings found her uptight and annoying from the start. At any rate, writing that letter to the Turkish embassy vaulted Lady Edith into the top three most delightfully despicable characters on Downton (O'Brien and Thomas hold the top spots). In Upstairs, Lady Persie's evil initially manifests itself as basic brattiness, but — without giving too much away — trust us that Persie goes off the deep end in a truly ludicrous way. Also: Firth fanatics will recognize her as the shrewish older sister from the early Amanda Bynes classic What a Girl Wants. Instant loathing!

The chauffeur knows his politics — and his aristocratic young ladies.
It's hard to blame Branson, Downton's charming and slightly hapless Irish radical, for falling in love with Sybil Suffragette. Upstairs' Spargo, on the other hand, knows better than to dally with Lady Persie, which is clearly why he lectures her about "social rules" in his most seductive voice.

Everyone still dresses for dinner. And breakfast, luncheon, tea, errands, and lounging around in the library.
This category might actually be the one serious edge Upstairs has on Downton — though, to be fair, it’s easier to get down with a slinky thirties evening dress than the billowing black riding cloak poor Mary had to seduce Pamuk in. But Lady Persie really rocks the hell out of her pantsuits, and even Maud gets her own special Grandma Maharaja look.

The servants iron newspapers.
Okay, this is a minor point, but we just really wanted to visit the whole newspaper-ironing concept. We know it’s supposed to keep the ink from staining aristocratic fingers, but from a “catching on fire” standpoint, we’re still baffled. Fingers crossed for the Great Iron Newspaper Fire of 1915 next season.

Photo: BBC