Returning for an expanded six-episode run, “Masterpiece Classic’s” reboot of “Upstairs Downstairs” yields some genuine surprises and a rich historical backdrop, set against the tensions surrounding 165 Eaton Place amid the swirl of events leading toward the onset of World War II. Soapy, well cast and boasting uniformly strong performances, the show’s servant-class stories still don’t measure up to more regal doings, and the series proves enjoyable, but a few rungs down the ladder of TV royalty — essentially, a handsome placeholder — compared with the similarly themed “Downton Abbey.”
The house’s upstairs occupants remain Sir Hallam (Ed Stoppard), a diplomat who opposes efforts to appease the Nazis and stave off war; and his elegant wife Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes). Still, if the world’s problems are at the precipice, so are the couple’s, including the complications posed by Agnes’ rebellious sister Persie (Claire Foy, simply terrific), who finds herself in Germany — having become the kept woman of a Nazi leader — even as conditions deteriorate.
The presence of Hallam’s aunt Blanche (“ER’s” Alex Kingston) also enlivens the house, along with cameos by actors playing various real-world figures — among them Ambassador Kennedy and his young son, Jack — who pass through the diplomat’s orbit.
Written and produced by Heidi Thomas (also responsible for PBS lead-in “Call the Midwife”), “Upstairs” fares less well in exploring the trials and tribulations of the servants, including a budding relationship between the chauffeur (Neil Jackson) and a new maid (Laura Haddock). Held up against upstairs scandals ranging from the lusty to epic, these common folk can’t help but seem a trifle mundane. (Jean Marsh, star and co-creator of the Emmy-winning original series in the 1970s, reprised her role the first time around, but has only a fleeting cameo here.)
“Downton” represents a perhaps unfair yardstick for this “Upstairs Downstairs,” which, despite its flaws, is more fully fleshed than its three-part maiden flight. It’s also more satisfying than the first — handsomely shot, unpredictable and edgy, even if the ending proves something of a letdown. Moreover, given the periods encompassed by “Downton” (set around World War I) and “Upstairs,” viewed in tandem, the productions provide an interesting window into the erosion of aristocracy as it was hastened by the two world wars.
Already under siege from those who would slash its funding, PBS occasionally appeared too sleepy to fully compete in today’s rough-and-tumble marketplace. In that context, even if “Upstairs” doesn’t quite rise to public TV’s top tier, it’s indicative of a service that clearly and happily has upped its game.