TV happy to revisit Depression era

Miniseries on HBO, PBS take viewers back to the '30s

Television is about to party like it’s 1935.

OK, not quite. But the next several weeks bring a pair of classy miniseries to TV, both set in the 1930s: HBO’s five-part adaptation of “Mildred Pierce” (see review, page 20), beginning March 27; and on April 10 (the night “Mildred” ends), the start of a three-part revival of “Upstairs Downstairs” on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”

Coincidence? Probably. But like the recent “Masterpiece” production “Any Human Heart,” the rebooted “Upstairs” — set in 1936 — encompasses the same historical period as “The King’s Speech,” tracing the prewar era in Britain and the abdication of King Edward VIII.

This is noteworthy if only because of the longstanding perception that period pieces were (to borrow an old phrase) Nielsen and box office poison. For that reason, the emergence of several pilots for next season set in earlier times — from a pair in the mid-19th century to ABC’s “Pan Am” and NBC’s “Playboy,” which take place in the swingin’ 1960s — yielded speculation about a “Mad Men” effect, with networks looking beyond their comfort zones thanks to AMC’s Emmy-winning drama.

In all likelihood, the explanation for the increase of period shows is closer to happenstance, though the renewed interest in the ’30s — an era characterized by strong class distinctions amid the throes of the Depression — does convey something about the mood of modern storytellers. And while producers have explored the current economic downturn in contemporary programs, using the prism of the past is often an effective means to highlight such issues, just as “Mad Men’s” gender and workplace dynamics provide insight into the modern culture wars.

In an HBO “making of” documentary about “Mildred Pierce,” director/co-writer Todd Haynes acknowledged being drawn to James M. Cain’s original book by the parallels between its era and the tumbling financial markets in 2008. “It felt so intensely relevant to what was going on,” he said, citing “how much of an interesting window into this time our current situation provides.”

Both “Upstairs Downstairs” and another recent “Masterpiece” production, the early-19th century “Downton Abbey,” also focus on a stark divide between the wealthy and their servants. American entertainment, by contrast, is generally less willing to couch stories based on class. Even at a time when the disparity between rich and poor has become an element of the political debate, the point of origination for that discussion is almost invariably the middle class, and most of TV plays to those sensibilities.

Characters in present-day dramas such as “Desperate Housewives” have experienced financial struggles. Reality TV, however, has adopted a more feel-good approach to the ailing economy, from the can-do spirit of “The Apprentice” becoming a competition for disenfranchised workers, to CEOs and millionaires assisting the deserving in “Undercover Boss” and “Secret Millionaire,” respectively.

Addressing economic inequality, meanwhile, has largely been left to documentary filmmakers within the rarefied environs of HBO or PBS. Both of those outlets, notably, commissioned projects marking the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Triangle fire (HBO’s “Triangle” premieres March 21), which became a symbol of how callously garment industry workers were mistreated before organized labor interceded on their behalf.

While a few pilots and couple of miniseries hardly amount to a deluge, before “Mad Men” and the double whammy of the bank bailouts, the early and mid-20th century clearly held scant appeal. HBO did deal with the Depression-era Dust Bowl in “Carnivale,” but that was largely a macabre fantasy, and the series lasted only two seasons before succumbing in 2005 — a victim of its own bleakness and eccentricities.

There’s an old saying about the tendency to see the past through rose-colored glasses, and that’s regularly been true in pop culture, a la “American Graffiti.” These recent productions, though, exhibit a more complex relationship with history — and, in the nuanced view of a “Mildred” or “Mad Men,” evidence of television’s growing maturity and ambition.

Because instead of mere nostalgia and wistfulness for simpler times, these productions are not just examining flaws in the not-always-so-good old days, but using those imperfections to identify inequities in modern society.

And from a creative perspective, that part isn’t the least bit depressing.

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