‘Downton’ Butler Wages War With Shiny Forks; Sleazy Cheadle: TV

"Downton Abbey," about a fictional aristocratic English family and its staff, was created by Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”), and is set at a sprawling Yorkshire estate. Photographer: Nick Briggs/ITV for Masterpiece via Bloomberg

Jan. 5 (Bloomberg) -- At Downton Abbey, polishing silverware is nothing short of a battle cry.

“Keeping up standards is the only way to show the Germans that they will not beat us in the end,” head butler Carson (Jim Carter) says in Season 2 of “Downton Abbey,” a popular British series that’s been transported to PBS.

The first season all but perfected the upstairs-downstairs genre of period drama, that British conflagration of erudition, class division, sumptuous acting and impeccably-dressed historical soap opera. Now, World War I (and its aftermath) keeps the seven new episodes pulsing with home-front melodrama and high-stakes romance.

“Downton,” created by Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”), is set on a sprawling Yorkshire estate owned by the well-born Grantham family but run by a small army of butlers, footmen, cooks and maids.

The sophomore season begins in 1916 while Matthew (Dan Stevens), a handsome middle-class cousin, is off fighting for king and country at the Battle of the Somme. (He stands to inherit the whole Grantham shebang because there are no direct male heirs.)

Given a few days R&R, Matthew heads home to Downton, where men are in short supply during wartime. Even Thomas (Rob James-Collier), the scheming footman, is on the front lines, no less duplicitous in the trenches than he was under the sheets.

Back home, the women are either resisting social change or embracing it.

Scandalous Affair

Free-spirited Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) opts for volunteerism and a hunky Irish chauffer (Allen Leech). Her plain, bitter sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) is learning to drive (shocking!). And Mary (Michelle Dockery), whose longing for Matthew is star-crossed, is mired in a loveless engagement to a social-climbing newspaper tycoon.

Even the working stiffs, ever protective of their hidebound servant traditions, are dusting their way into a new age. Bates, the married valet (Brendan Coyle), and housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) go public with an affair that could bring scandal to the household.

Resistance is mostly left to Downton’s aging Violet (a magnificent Maggie Smith). As room at the estate is converted into a makeshift hospital and convalescent center for wounded vets, the appalled Dowager Countess sniffs, “Amputation in the dining room? Resuscitation in the pantry?”

Smith packs an entire epoch into a line like that, her withering tone beautifully capturing the high dudgeon (and high camp) that makes “Downton Abbey” so delightful.

“Downton Abbey” airs Jan. 8 at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2

‘House of Lies’

Don Cheadle’s likability is the only saving grace of “House of Lies,” Showtime’s crude new comedy/drama about high-powered management consultants.

Based loosely on Martin Kihn’s best-seller “House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time,” the half-hour series sketches its corporate fixers with the quick, brash and vulgar strokes of HBO’s “Entourage.”

Cheadle’s Marty Kaan (pronounced “con”) is the consultant who’ll try anything for a client, including, on occasion, honesty.

“America [bleeping] hates you,” he tells the head of a New York City bank.

Creator/writer Matthew Carnahan softens Marty by giving him both a conscience and a young son who auditions for the Olivia Newton-John role in a school production of “Grease.”

But the repetitive plots -- will Marty satisfy the client? How about the client’s wife? -- aren’t compelling, and swimming with these sharks offers little more than Cheadle’s toothsome grin.

“House of Lies” airs Jan. 8 at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: **

“Absolutely Fabulous”

“There’s a new disease,” says Edina Monsoon, the uber-fashionista of “Absolutely Fabulous” who worshipped Lacroix and made “sweetie darling” the 1990s’ endearment of choice. “It’s called Kardashians.”

Twenty years after its BBC debut, “Ab Fab” is back for a trio of anniversary specials.

Times might have changed, but Patsy (Joanna Lumley), Eddy (Jennifer Saunders) and her uptight daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha) haven’t. Even the best sitcoms calcify, their characters repeating old jokes that play to diehards.

Still, the performances are as sharp as ever, and the first half-hour episode (written by Saunders) does a clever job of reuniting the bickering women.

“Absolutely Fabulous” airs Jan. 8 on BBC America and Logo at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: **1/2


What the Stars Mean:

****          Excellent
***           Good
**            Average
*             Poor
(No stars)    Worthless

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Greg Evans at gregeaevans@yahoo.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.