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DAVID BIANCULLI, Host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli.
It's a busy weekend for television, with three new series premiering Sunday on cable and public TV - "Episodes" and "Shameless" on the Showtime cable network, and "Downton Abbey" on PBS.
A few things about these new shows should be noted at the start - they're all very well-acted, cleverly written, fun to watch and a little unusual. Not one of them comes from commercial broadcast TV, which continues to play things safe and boring this season. And, by coincidence, all of them have something to do with the United Kingdom.
"Downton Abbey," the latest miniseries import from what used to be known as "Masterpiece Theatre," is a great new period drama made the way the British used to make them, back in the days of "Brideshead Revisited." "Shameless," a new comedy starring William H. Macy, isn't a British show, but it's an American remake of one. And "Episodes," a new comedy starring Matt LeBlanc, is about a British sitcom that's being adapted for America, like "The Office" was - and with the former star of "Friends," playing himself, offered the leading role.
Let's start with "Downton Abbey," the best imported miniseries since "Bleak House." It's written by Julian Fellowes, who wrote the movie "Gosford Park," and it's a kind of modern take on "Upstairs, Downstairs." It's got the same division between the downstairs people - the servants - and the upstairs people, their wealthy employers. Except in "Downton Abbey," which takes place in the early 20th century, money is so scarce the residents of the Abbey may soon lose title to their own estate. And while the servants downstairs iron the morning newspaper so the ink won't run on the hands of the Earl of Grantham, the headlines themselves deliver some unsettling news about other people of privilege - aboard the "Titanic." Jim Carter plays the head butler, Mr. Carson, and Hugh Bonneville plays the Earl, who turns out to be surprisingly - and endearingly - sensitive.
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HUGH BONNEVILLE: (as Earl Grantham) Good morning, Carson.
JIM CARTER: (as Mr. Carson) Good morning, my Lord.
BONNEVILLE: (as Earl Grantham) Is it true what they're saying?
CARTER: (as Earl Grantham) I believe so, my lord.
BONNEVILLE: (as Earl Grantham) I'm afraid we'll know some people on it. I don't suppose there are any survivors yet.
CARTER: (as Earl Grantham) I understand most of the ladies were taking off in time.
BONNEVILLE: (as Earl Grantham) You mean the ladies in first class? God help the poor devils below decks.
BIANCULLI: This miniseries pays equal attention down below and up above, with characters that are full of surprises and quirks, and storylines that offer the same. It's not unreasonable to expect a period drama like "Downton Abbey" to offer scenes of illicit romance and unexpected death - but at the same time? All that, and there's a fox hunt, too.
"Shameless," based on a British series that has run for eight seasons now, stars William H. Macy as an irresponsible drunk with a bunch of kids who cope, mostly, not because of him but in spite of him. This American remake, like the original, is written by Paul Abbott, and if you've watched a lot of British imports, you know his work: The detective series "Cracker," the original miniseries version of "State of Play."
"Shameless" is a comedy, but a really, really dark one - one that almost dares you to like its central character. The series is daring in other ways, too. For one thing, Macy, the star of the show, barely appears in Sunday's premiere episode, which focuses instead on his eldest daughter, played by Emmy Rossum, and the other kids. But they're strong enough to carry on without him - which, in this show, is the entire point.
There's a similar trick pulled in the opening program of "Episodes," which stars Matt LeBlanc as an exaggerated version of Matt LeBlanc. He shows up in the opening scene, but only to launch a flashback - which takes up the entire seven episodes of the show's first, limited season. He doesn't even reappear until episode two - but as with William H. Macy in "Shameless," the show works just fine until he shows up.
The real focus of "Episodes" is on Sean and Beverly, writers of a fictional, award-winning British TV comedy - one that an American TV executive persuades them to come to America to remake because it's his favorite show. Only after they sign up and show up do they realize he's never even seen it.
And in episode two of "Episodes," when they take a courtesy lunch meeting with Matt LeBlanc, it's only because they're told he saw and loved their series while making a movie in England. It doesn't take them long to learn that's not quite true, either. Stephen Mangan plays Sean, Tamsin Grieg is Sean's wife and writing partner Beverly, and Matt LeBlanc, approaching the restaurant table while talking on his cell phone, is himself, sort of.
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MATT LE BLANC: (as himself) They're asking if we have the financing?
Unidentified Actor: We think that it's...
LE BLANC: (as himself) Screw that. Tell him that we're looking at another location and if were not closed by the end of today the whole thing is off the table. Bye. Sorry. Trying to buy a restaurant.
TAMSIN GRIEG: (as Beverly) Hi, I'm Beverly. This is Sean.
STEPHEN MANGAN: (as Sean) Hey.
LE BLANC: (as himself) So. I'm here, why?
MANGAN: (as Sean) Yeah, well, to talk about our show.
LE BLANC: (as himself) What show?
GRIEG: (as Beverly) Brilliant.
MANGAN: (as Sean) Did, did you recently shoot a movie in England?
LE BLANC: (as himself) No.
MANGAN: (as Sean) So, you're not a huge fan...
LE BLANC: (as himself) Of England?
MANGAN: (as Sean) No. No, of us?
LE BLANC: (as himself) Of you? No.
MANGAN: (as Sean) Oh, well, if this isn't a total awkward.
LE BLANC: (as himself) Let me ask you something. Would you go to a restaurant where you roll your own sushi?
GRIEG: (as Beverly) Absolutely not.
LE BLANC: (as himself) See, that's what I'm afraid of.
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LE BLANC: (as himself) Oh, one second.
BIANCULLI: "Episodes" is unexpectedly good, sharp and funny - and knows the territory, because co-creator David Crane was one of the creators of "Friends." And he doesn't just focus on Matt LeBlanc, either. Tamsin Grieg, especially a joy.
In fact, all three of these shows - "Episodes," "Shameless" and "Downton Abbey" - are pleasures to watch. And not one of them, it's worth reiterating, comes from the standard Hollywood system.
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BIANCULLI: Coming up, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, the star and director respectively, of the cop comedy "The Other Guys" which is now out on DVD.
This is FRESH AIR.
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