5 fun shows like Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey castUm, so who would’ve thought a show about fancy rich people going about their fancy rich lives wouldn’t been a huge international smash hit? Well, people who like good writing. Duh. Take note, Hollywood. Special effects bonanzas need not apply.

So Downton Abbey has become an absolutely spectacular party for everyone involved, featuring some hugely famous British actors, and legions of fans glued to the screen. But…it’s just one show. For those on the lookout for other TV shows like Downton Abbey, what are they to do?

Well, it’s actually pretty tough finding anything really close, but a few somewhat similar shows do in fact exist, though not necessarily including every aspect you’ve come to know and love from the show. On the one hand, it’s tough doing period drama, mainly for budget reasons, and on the other hand, there are all sorts of periods to choose from, and they might not match up to this particular epoch. But let’s see what we can find.

A few shows like Downton Abbey

1) Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle

Or you can go back to the 1980 version if you don’t like this combo.

Okay, so you can probably just go straight here and call it a day. I’d imagine that the vast majority of Downton Abbey lovers would likely be fans of Pride and Prejudice (in book form) already, or they’d be primed to love it if given the chance. And the BBC did in fact make a TV show back in 1995.

At only 6 episodes long (British shows are quick!), you can go through it pretty quickly, since it’s just an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, so don’t be too sad when it goes right by. Besides, Jane Austen has plenty more books to keep you busy for a while.

As for similarities, well, love stories of the wealthy are on full display here, and the time period has an immeasurable effect on the circumstances the characters must deal with, all giving it a certain similarity in spirit compared to Downton; it’s in an earlier time period, but much of the background decoration and rich privilege will sound eerily similar.

Production values aren’t up to par, though. It still looks pretty good, but don’t expect HD-quality facial pores to be visible at all times like you’ve come to expect elsewhere. Though I suppose movie adaptations would help out with that to some degree…

2) Cranford

Cranford cast

Not as much money, still just as English.

Another BBC miniseries (they crank ’em out all the time there), this one is somewhat more simple and straightforward than Downton, but offers a somewhat older depiction of life in England, this one set in 1840, with the not-so-wealthy playing important roles in the story as well, as opposed to the story centering around fancy people.

As is the case with Downton, the characters are going through the upheaval that comes with technological modernization, social evolution, and other unstoppable progress, and must make do with the changes, having no choice to do otherwise.

The story itself is less concerned with the wealthy upper class, focusing instead on the working men and women (though mostly the women) in a small village in England. Marriage (particularly the “you have to do it early” kind) is a significant influence on the lives of the characters, as small village life generally requires the marrying off of young girls whenever they can possibly get the chance.

The story is based on stories by Elizabeth Gaskell (not only a novella named Cranford, but two other stories of hers, all combined into a single miniseries), and features excellent performances and well crafted sets. Great for viewers who love themselves some old-timey English village romance.

3) Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife cast on bicycles

A biker gang like no other.

So this is period drama in England in the 1950s. Apparently their plan is to cover each and every decade, one miniseries at a time. Combine this with Cranford and they’ll balance out to just about even!

The series was a huge success, and happened to be based not on novels, but memoirs; it offers a look at a rather “ordinary” profession that rarely, if ever, gets televised treatment. As you might expect from the title, the story centers around a midwife, and the children they deliver. Back in the 1950s, this was an even tougher job than delivering kids today.

Once again, period costumes are in great supply, and the story deals with “regular” life, much in the way Downton Abbey does, though the challenges are an altogether different proposition for these people, as opposed to the wealthier residents of the fancy manner that is Downton. I actually like the idea of depicting ordinary life, so it’s quite refreshing to see something like this hit it pretty big.

4) Mad Men

Mad Men

They’re mad indeed.

So if you were to move Downton to the US of A in the early 60s, and move the central location from a fancy shmancy house to a workplace, you’d probably get Mad Men. I know that sounds trite, but there’s a lot in common, at least in tone.

In both cases, the characters are living during a significant time of transition, and the old cultural traditions are giving way to new customs, which either confuse, terrify, or thrill the old generation dealing with the seismic shift. The specifics are different in each series, but in each case, life is changing, and the world is moving inexorably toward modernism. Though it’s often merely a backdrop, it can impact the plot and characters at times.

And some people just like watching TV that takes place in a different time. And Mad Men has gotten as much attention to detail as anyone, with tiny touches here and there, from fashion, to mannerisms, and so on.

But the tone is also important; the slow, methodical, gradual presentation of characters and challenges is something of a hallmark on both shows. High-intensity action is rare, while quiet, understated subtext reigns supreme. If that sounds great, you’ll enjoy moving from Downton to Mad Men quite easily.

5) Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones cast shot

It’s more awkward as a promo shot since we all know they’d never be in the same room like this.

You know what? I might just recommend Game of Thrones to just about everyone on the planet. Part of that is because it’s awesome, but another part of that is that the series is so broad in its scope that all manner of lifestyles are presented within. Though it’s particularly similar when it comes to shows like Downton Abbey.

This is no more clear than when we’re watching Sansa go about her princessly duties like a good little girl. Courtly customs, royal intrigue, noble privilege, and the darkness behind the shiny exterior are all there, just like Downton.

You probably feel like they’re spiritually similar when it comes to other events; warfare, coming of age of smaller children, and other themes play major roles as well; but chances are it’ll be so damn good that you won’t care. It’s high-stakes period drama, without ever quite feeling like “period drama.” Which, by the way, is problem Sansa faces with spectacular awkwardness.

Check it out. You’ll love the courtly royal intrigue and old-fashioned customs and lifestyles, and you’ll stick around for the swords and dragons and other fun stuff.

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