Staying In(stant): Why Upstairs Downstairs Should Be Your New Favorite Binge-Watch

upstairs1Photo: Courtesy of PBS.
Full disclosure: We love TV. So much so that sometimes we'd rather spend a whole weekend in front of the tube than dancing in da club. Is a lack of television service holding you back from feeling our joy? No problem! You can get by just fine on Netflix, Hulu, and the myriad other streaming services rapidly taking over the home entertainment industry (thank you, Internet!).
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Some shows are just better when binge-watched. Whether it's the latest BBC comedy, a PBS miniseries from the '70s, or just that cultish show prematurely scrubbed from a network, we're hooked on the stream. Staying In(stant), is your weekly guide to the best of streaming content. Each week, we bring you a show we're obsessed with and think you should be, too.
This week: Upstairs Downstairs, the original 1971 drama, following the Bellamy family and their staff from 1903-1930.
Where To Watch: Hulu, PBS.com
How I Got Hooked:
One evening back in my teen years, my dad and I were clicking through the channels looking for something that neither of us hated — an exceptionally tall order during my Dawson's Creek years. We landed on PBS in the middle of an Upstairs Downstairs marathon and dad perked up. He usually can't stand narrative television, preferring either baseball or 11-hour documentaries about the life of Saint Francis. So, when he started chattering away about the plot of this particular episode ("She used to be a scullery maid and now she's pregnant with the heir's baby and Lady Bellamy doesn't know but the butler does!") I paid attention.
It sounded (and looked) like an old school soap opera. And, in a way, it was. The show was shot on a soundstage, a multi-camera drama. And yes, there were pregnant-scullery-maid story arcs. But, the acting, writing, and direction of the series was so precise and startling that the show never veered toward schmaltz. If anything, it was deceptively light. You never expected the plot twists and the dark subject matter handled head-on. You tuned in for a frothy, overly British farce and got one of the most envelope-pushing TV shows ever to run. You'd be hard pressed to find an American television show at the time that would have pushed so many buttons.
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Best Episode:
There are many juicy or romantic story lines, but the one you'll never forget is the second season episode titled, "A Special Mischief." Elizabeth Bellamy joins a militant suffragette movement, and inadvertently gets her lady's maid, Rose, imprisoned. Rose, played by series co-creator Jean Marsh, is forced to undergo torture, force-feeding, and constant beating. It paints a picture of the true brutality that this movement incurred. And, where other depictions paint the suffragettes as pure, proper, ladylike women, Upstairs Downstairs chose to show an uglier side of the story. There are no perfect heroes and no absolute villains, and by the end of this episode the viewer's been pulled through the emotional ringer.
Why You'll Love It:
For one thing, the show isn't bound by a strict linear narrative. One episode might take place in March 1904. The following one might take place the next day, or it might jump ahead to January 1906. In this way, the show was able to prioritize writing rather than stringing the viewer along waiting for a narrative payoff. While most episodes had a defined arc, they each built a better big-picture story of both the upstairs family and downstairs community. And, along the way we bump up against memorable moments in history — everything from the death of King Edward to the crash of the stock market — all seamlessly integrated into the story.
And, it's just a really good, well-oiled machine of a show. The cast of characters is huge and intricate, and every episode is a surprise. I struggle with even calling it a drama, because there are moments of real, straight-forward humor. But, the overall effect of this series is to draw you in and get you attached to characters — some of whom may find happiness ever after, and others who may be unceremoniously killed by Spanish Flu. You never know what's going to happen, but you always care. At the end of the day, isn't that the one thing we really want from television?
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