What To Watch When You're Not Watching ‘Downton Abbey'

Downton Abbey is the first PBS program to cover TV Guide since some 1980 Carl Sagan show about stars who never fall in love or wear sparkly gowns or ride around in carriages. (Alright, fine, Cosmos was a big deal, even if stars don’t struggle with repressed feelings because they tend to just explode.)

I am particularly thrilled to see PBS’s Masterpiece hit mainstream audiences because I have been obsessed with Masterpiece since I was a wee lass in suburban Delaware who dreamed of a better life where she could wear corsets all day and be denied a college education.

I kid.

But let’s be clear, Downton Abbey is a well-acted, well-written, emotionally exploitative fantasy and I am addicted to fantasy.

There are only two seasons available so far (and a Christmas special that aired in the UK), but that doesn’t mean the fun has to stop when Downton‘s second season ends. If you find yourself needing a Downton fix, but are somehow tired of visiting the Abbey itself, here are some other worthy Masterpiece productions that might help you pull through:

If you like the plots about sisters trying to find love in a crazy, well-mannered world: Wives and Daughters, starring Justine Waddell and Keeley Hawes, based on the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters is fantastic. It was written in the 1800s, but it deals head on with issues of female relationships that are constantly up for debate today. It also features Lady Mary’s villainous suitor, Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen), in another villainous suitor role. This mini-series also contains one of my favorite quotes about beauty: “The French girls would tell you to believe that you are pretty would make you so.”

Believe you’re pretty, guys, and you will be pretty in France!

If you like watching how the 20th century’s changing morals affect an entire family: The Forsyte Saga, Series 1 & 2, starring Damien Lewis and Rupert Graves, based on the books by John Galsworthy

The Forsyte Saga is epic. The first series is all about this mean, miserly guy named Soames who seeks to control his beautiful wife, Irene, who is in love with a hot architect. Oh, and Soames’s family has their own internal dramas. The second series is about the next generation and I actually prefer it to the first, and would explain why, but then I’d be giving massive spoilers for the first series. Also, the people in this story are named things like Soames and Jolyon and Montague and everyone behaves as though these are completely normal first names, which they are not.

Anyway, if you like intense soap operas, you need to watch The Forsyte Saga immediately!

If you like your romances to include labor rights and an icy rich girl being won over by a lesser born dreamboat from a northern industrial town: North and South, starring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe, based on the book by Elizabeth Gaskell (*This one may not have actually been screened on Masterpiece. It might have been BBC America. Whatever.)

North and South is like Pride and Prejudice with a  socio-economic conscience. That might sound boring, but it’s actually quite fascinating. After the Industrial Revolution, the meaning of class started to get blurred. Who is superior? An educated daughter of a gentleman who had a mid-life crisis and quit his job or a rough and wealthy factory owner who only has wealth because he chose work over an education? WHEN WILL THEY KISS?!?!?!

If you like brooding men and you don’t know who Richard Armitage is, then consider North and South your homework. You’ll thank me for it later.

If you like watching Dan Stevens be dreamy: Sense and Sensibility, starring Dan Stevens and some people who aren’t Dan Stevens, based on the novel by Jane Austen.

I think the most tragic scene in any Masterpiece production was last week’s Downton Abbey episode wherein both Lavinia and Mary had to deal with the idea that they may never get to know Matthew Crawley–ahem–intimately.  Dan Stevens was made to be swooned over and any fictional physical injury that prevents proper swooning is an affront to mankind. Thankfully, there is a Masterpiece mini-series where Dan Stevens walks around unscathed: Sense and Sensibility.

He’s so earnest and blue-eyed and floppy haired (and fully physically functional!) ! <I’m swooning….>

If you like the humor, scandal and more modern aspects of the show: Casanova, starring David Tennant and Rose Byrne, based on the autobiography of Casanova.

This final one is a completely fun, sexy, silly romp that pays absolutely no mind to historical accuracy. This mini-series is just an excuse for David Tennant to be charming, and I will never disagree with that. Rose Byrne, who’s appeared recently in Bridesmaids and Damages, appears as a smart young maid who listens to the elderly Casanova’s tales from his youth. The first two acts are so fun and enchanting that by the time the sad scenes roll around, you feel the characters’ heartbreak so much more.

There’s also a hilarious conversation about being a “spy” that everyone should watch at least once in their life. I love hilarious conversations about being a “spy”.

Most of these titles are on Netflix instant streaming or available at your local library. Seriously. The DVD collections of most public libraries are just a Masterpiece lover’s dream. You can get anything from Daniel Deronda to I, Claudius or, you know, the books those mini-series are based upon.

So, even if Downton Abbey isn’t on television every night of the week, you can easily find another fantasy world to visit. Maybe it will even be Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. (Though that’s not a fantasy series, it’s a science series, but I heard it’s good even if Maggie Smith never shows up to crack a joke.)

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  • http://www.facebook.com/lindsay.goins Lindsay Goins

    Oh man, North and South. Swoon. I had actually finished watching that when Netflix recommended Downton Abbey to me… you could say it was my gateway drug.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=152001625 Allie Giles

    love love love you for posting this. when i’m all caught up on my downton i feel serious withdrawals. this will help me deal with some of that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553435055 Elizabeth Polit

    I LOVE North & South. Richard Armitage almost reaches Colin Firth sexiness. Almost.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=736521795 Amanda Haas

    I’m addicted, so much to Dowton. Reading Elizabeth Gaskell are right up there with the drama that is in these tv shows. I read Mary Barton for a school assignment and it was much like Downton except the rich were looked at very well.
    I’m waiting on an American story line to come and rival Downton Abbey. It will sorely lose..

  • http://www.facebook.com/lindsaybradleigh Lindsay Bradleigh Shank

    I adored ‘Casanova’ so much that I went out and bought the DVD. Love that someone else loves it too!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1297021885 Maeve O’Connell

    I’ve been meaning to watch most of these! and North & South is definitely a winner. Actually anything with Richard Armitage wins. And I loled at the fact that Matthew’s disability was the most tragic thing to you, and not William’s death.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eastautumnpacificocean Colleen Sweeney

    I have seen Sense and Sensibility with Dan Stevens, North & South (Richard Armitage–I die), and The Forsyte Sagas. I originally got into the first Forsyte Saga for Ioan Gruffudd, but I was so hooked I watched the rest of the series.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=735630803 Ann Whitney

    Awesome selections!!!! North and South is sooooooo great, but you forgot to mention that Downton’s Mr. Bates is one of the main characters as well! :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=212400563 Susannah Nelson

    I love period dramas like “Downton Abbey.” Some others I’ve found: “Daniel Deronda,” “Under the Greenwood Tree,” “Cranford,” “Return to Cranford,” “Larkrise to Candleford,” “Our Mutual Friend,” “The Way We Live Now,” “Little Dorrit,” and “Gosford Park.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000137062559 Mary Rutherford Pierce

    The Buccaneers – another Wharton-based miniseries..Carla Gugino, Mra Sorvino..

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1103436387 Jazmin Villarreal

    Tess of the d’Urbervilles is also a great heartbreaking series. But caution: you WILL need tissues to get through it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1002981427 Katie Sholty

    Can’t ever have enough of North and South. Something about those tall, dark, handome, broody men.

  • http://www.facebook.com/breannecunningham BreAnne Cunningham

    Just watched the first Forsyte episode earlier today…does it get better? I didn’t think I was going to keep watching it because it seemed a little corny…should I continue? I love everything else on this list of yours though!


  • http://www.facebook.com/bonjour.ellen Ellen Findley

    North & South and Sense & Sensibility are fabulous! I actually just rewatched Sense & Sensibility this weekend; Dan Stevens is so talented, and I love Hattie Morahan’s portrayal of Elinor! Richard Armitage is wonderful, too; it’s interesting to me how he’s becoming such a rising star in the U.S. now since he was in Captain America and will be in The Hobbit. Here’s to many more fantastic Masterpiece programs! (I can’t wait until the return of Sherlock!)

    • http://www.facebook.com/SilviaJuncaC Sílvia Juncà

      Sherlock!! Sherlock!!! Sherlock!!!!! 😀

  • http://www.facebook.com/SilviaJuncaC Sílvia Juncà

    SOOOO helpful!!! I’m wathching every single one of these!! THANK YOU!!! 😀

  • http://www.facebook.com/kstings Kate Hastings

    LOVE North & South and Richard Armitage. Swoon. And Sense and Sensibility is fantastic with Dan Stevens. Also, the Masterpiece version of Emma is pretty great with Jonny Lee Miller. Persuasion is just alright, though, because Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot is probably the most irritating thing to watch since.. well.. ever.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t get Only Fools & Horses. Is it like roigilen? That part of my brain doesn’t understand either. Ooh, nor Two and a Half Men.VA:F [1.9.11_1134]

    • Anonymous

      DVP8CH uoxiykylofbg

  • http://www.facebook.com/jessica.broadbent1 Jessica Broadbent

    I adored most of these, and also loved Hornblower, the series based around the books by c. S. Forrester, about a midshipman, Horatio Hornblower, who is in the British navy at the time of the Napoleonic wars. The series stars Ioan Gryffudd, and is completely great.

    Warning, it does get a little bloody during some of the battles, so beware. But they’re great fun too.

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