Period dramas, but not those rich folk
September 25, 2017 5:34 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for the anti-Downtown Abbey, does it exist? I feel like I'm looking for a unicorn

I really adore period dramas and films, but by nature of #aesthetic that means most of them tend to focus on the upper class. I didn't make it two episodes into Downtown Abbey before I realized I really don't care about rich people wringing their hands over inheritance, or servants buying into class stereotypes and looking down on other servants of the "lesser rich".

I prefer pre-1900s, but I also feel this may have limited my choices; it doesn't seem like a lot of period works focus on the lower classes. And this isn't specifically "I want tv shows that focus on X", this is more "I cannot sympathize with the rich crying over rich problems right now, but damn it I still like seeing historical costumes."

My NO list, because I see them recommended a lot for period dramas in general:
Downtown Abbey
The Tudors
Mad Men
Merlin (probably? I don't know, it doesn't seem my style and I'm not really looking for fantasy right now)

I've tried searching old AskMe posts but I'm not finding what I'm looking for. Non-English dramas are fine, too, but I also do not have access to US Netflix or Hulu, and I'm not looking to download. (If there's, uh... alternative methods for watching a particular niche show, hit me up in MeMail)
posted by lesser weasel to Media & Arts (54 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
posted by gryftir at 5:36 PM on September 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

posted by Thorzdad at 5:38 PM on September 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Call the Midwife
Foyle's War
posted by DarlingBri at 5:39 PM on September 25, 2017 [19 favorites]

posted by aetg at 5:40 PM on September 25, 2017 [11 favorites]

Turn? Revolutionary War spy drama.
posted by xyzzy at 5:41 PM on September 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Knick?
posted by cnanderson at 5:42 PM on September 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yes! Turn, Call the Midwife, and The Knick. Warning that The Knick has a lot of medical gore.
posted by delight at 5:44 PM on September 25, 2017

YES - Deadwood will change your life.
posted by jbenben at 5:45 PM on September 25, 2017 [10 favorites]

Lark Rise to Candleford
Also, see if you can find the 1989 tv movie of Precious Bane (I've found it on youtube)
North and South miniseries
Also maybe Songcatcher
posted by gudrun at 5:49 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I really liked Peaky Blinders, though it's about WW1 vets, a bit later than your preferred period.

Copper might fit in there. Police drama about Five Points Manhattan in the 1860s.
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 5:52 PM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

i had high hopes for peaky blinders but i couldn't even get through the first episode. turn, however, was excellent.
posted by poffin boffin at 6:03 PM on September 25, 2017

Outlander. I don't like fantasy as a general rule, but to me Outlander is more of a costume drama set in two different time periods than it is a fantasy story.
posted by mudpuppie at 6:14 PM on September 25, 2017 [7 favorites]

I don't have something for right now, but due out soon is the adaptation of Alias Grace, originally a novel by Margaret Atwood. U.S. Netflix will be airing it, but it's a co-production with the CBC, so you might have another way to get it.
posted by gladly at 6:19 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Poldark is about how Demelza comes from poverty and marries a man who is in and out of debt. I haven't seen season 3 so I don't know if that turns its focus to the rich character Elizabeth.
posted by cda at 6:22 PM on September 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

In addition to the excellent suggestions above:

18th century:
Outlander, please and thank you.

19th century
The 1995 Pride and Prejudice, accept no substitutes (especially not the 2005 one!) Might push a bit into "rich people problems" territory, but it's Jane Austen and she's a winner any time.
Dark Angel is about a 19th century serial murderess. She starts working class and climbs through the ranks. Minimal gore. It does star one of the Downton maids, but in a very different role.
Wives and Daughters, which sounds froofy but actually is a fantastic examination of the changeover from Romanticism to Naturalism in the mid 19th century.
Middlemarch might also tend a little toward rich people problems, but it's got a strong social justice / self-fulfillment streak.

Early 20th century:
All Quiet on the Western Front (the 1930s version with Lew Ayres) but be forewarned, you will weep.
The Durrells in Corfu, a gentle comedy about a middle class eccentric English family who moves to Greece in the 1930s.
South Riding, 1930s again, small village in the North of England. The book is very much the 20th century Middlemarch; the miniseries is a little slow but very well acted.
Cable Girls, which I think is only on Netflix?

Un village français, about a French village occupied by Nazis at the start of the War. Some characters are in the resistance, some are collaborators, some are desparately trying to stay neutral. All are nuanced. It's really a fantastic ensemble show.

Of note, I recently discovered Frock Flicks which has an extensive library of reviews of historical films, with a real focus on marginalized stories. They also have amazing snark for inappropriate costume design (I'll never look at a backlacing gown the same again!) You might find something you enjoy there.
posted by basalganglia at 6:23 PM on September 25, 2017 [16 favorites]

Harlots on Hulu was surprisingly good. Set around 1730, I want to say? In London. It's not as porny as I'd feared, and there's a lot of everyday hygiene/food/clothing/transportation depicted, mostly among poor folks, street preachers, and prostitutes. It's fascinating.
posted by witchen at 6:31 PM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Anne of Green Gables!
posted by epj at 6:33 PM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Lilies - set in 1920s Liverpool
posted by Squeak Attack at 6:46 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

"but damn it I still like seeing historical costumes."

Victorian Farm is full of historical costumes and the lives of the not-rich, though it's not a drama as such. (And then Victorian Pharmacy, and Tudor Monastery Farm, and Edwardian Farm, and anything else you can find with Ruth Goodman and the boys.)
posted by clawsoon at 7:01 PM on September 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

The old Upstairs, Downstairs was really good, although its look is pretty dated. I watched it all the way through a few years ago and really liked it. WAY better than Downton.
posted by JaneEyre at 7:02 PM on September 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

Haven't watched it so I have no idea if it's good or not, but maybe Jamestown?
posted by delight at 7:05 PM on September 25, 2017

Also, yes, Ruth Goodman's reality shows are excellent and I have found them on YouTube.
posted by delight at 7:05 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

The house of Eliot is very good, and definitely not about the rich.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 7:11 PM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Also, have you seen the miniseries of Wolf Hall? No need to sympathise with rich people problems there.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:15 PM on September 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries? A first glance it might not seem right, but I think it might work.
posted by beccaj at 7:15 PM on September 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

The Tree of Wooden Clogs
posted by effluvia at 7:44 PM on September 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Dancing on the Edge, about a black jazz band in 1930s London. Has the Duke of Kent and some aristos but mostly focuses on band leader Chiwetl Ejiofor and music journalist Matthew Goode; almost unbearably suspenseful.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:51 PM on September 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Came in to recommend Miss Fishers murder mysteries and Poldark. Also Murdoch Mysteries (Canadian) and Ripper Street (UK). Murdoch is more sweet and kinda goofy Victorian detective. Ripper Street is much grittier and sometimes disturbing.
posted by DarthDuckie at 8:02 PM on September 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Harlots on Hulu - loved the storyline, loved the costumes.
posted by Crystal Fox at 8:04 PM on September 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh! And Hell on Wheels. Building the transcontinental railroad post Civil War.
posted by DarthDuckie at 8:05 PM on September 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

Some great ideas above!! I suggest Bleak House, a PBS series from 10 years or so ago. Lots of poverty with a few rich people thrown in, but they are miserable rich people.

I see Pride and Prejudice mentioned above, so you might as well add Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion; all deal with women who are poor because they are (were) not allowed to inherit property or money.
posted by mulcahy at 8:25 PM on September 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Duchess of Duke Street -->really fun Victorian, female-driven rags-to-riches BBC show from the 70s (and it's about cooking and hospitality, so lots of great Victorian kitchens and copper pots and whatnot).
posted by Miss T.Horn at 8:46 PM on September 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

Call the Midwife is the perfect antidote to Downton Abbey. Yay socialized medicine and badass Anglican nuns with angelic singing voices.
posted by tully_monster at 10:09 PM on September 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

When the Boat Comes In!
posted by HandfulOfDust at 12:04 AM on September 26, 2017

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (with a sublime soundtrack)
posted by wutangclan at 12:43 AM on September 26, 2017

A little outside of the box, but if you're open to non-fiction/"reality" shows, you should check out The Supersizers and Victorian Slum House.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:39 AM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Not a TV show, but The Return of Martin Guerre.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:50 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Bramwell, about 'Dr. Eleanor Bramwell, a woman challenging the domination of men in the medical establishment, who runs a free hospital for the poor in the East End of London, during the late Victorian era'. She comes from a relatively well-off background, but most episodes focus on her work at the hospital.
posted by brushtailedphascogale at 4:57 AM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Our Mutual Friend -TV mini-series.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:42 AM on September 26, 2017

Ripper Street is dark, but so, SO good.
posted by Aunt Slappy at 7:50 AM on September 26, 2017

I also recommend any and all Jane Austen (particularly the 1995 Pride & Prejudice). The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Tess of the D'Urbervilles are both other BBC period crackers not just about rich people problems/petty servantry.
posted by london explorer girl at 8:49 AM on September 26, 2017

Thing about Downton is, anyone my age is really pissed off at it because it rejigged Upstairs Downstairs and made the wrong people the heros. Down with Julian Fellowes I say.
Seconding Upstairs Downstairs and the Duchess of Duke Street*. Gemma Jones (the Duchess) is fantastic, 40 years later doing another star turn in Spooks.
I also find my Victorian leanings are nicely accommodated by the Jeremy Brent version of Sherlock Homes. And also by the Victorian Ghost stories of MR James.

Good British telly series about working class people: Boys From the Black Stuff. Also very much recommend the Alan Bleasdale box set on the same page. These are from the 1980's though. Still, they reference a way of life that's passed.
And there are two quality series about the Northeast (Tyneside) in the 30's: Sam and When The Boat Comes In. Looks like Sam is going for silly money on Amazon but I've included the link for info about the series. I will say my granny couldn't watch the early episodes, it was too near the bone.

* Working class woman becomes cook then famous courtesan and mistress of Prince of Wales. A success story.
posted by glasseyes at 9:06 AM on September 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

The BBC did a fantastic drama about the Brontes recently, To Walk Invisible. My god it was tragic. But so worth watching , if you can get hold of it. From the blurb of the article: Sally Wainwright’s portrayal of the sisters’ rise to fame and their brother’s battle with alcoholism shows her ability to chronicle the extraordinary challenges faced by ordinary people
posted by glasseyes at 9:16 AM on September 26, 2017

Nthing Outlander and Peaky Blinders
posted by greta simone at 10:28 AM on September 26, 2017

It's post WW2, but I really enjoyed Small Island, if you can find it anywhere. It's about non-rich Londoners, specifically a Jamaican veteran, his wife, and their hard-pressed landlady whose husband went missing in the war (but she doesn't miss him that much...). Amazing cast, really funny and moving. (Book is also incredible.)
posted by Concordia at 10:55 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding North and South (Gaskell, not the US Civil War series). Most definitely focusing on the working class.
posted by Preserver at 11:12 AM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I liked From Hell pretty well. And Gangs of New York is supposed to be really good, but I haven't actually seen it.

They made The Feast of All Saints as a TV movie awhile back, and I don't know how good the mini-series actually was, but the book was excellent and would probably fit with what you're looking for.

Also, I'm not sure how flexible your definition of period drama is in this case, but if it's gorgeous costumes with a healthy dollop of "man, the past really sucked for a lot of people" that you're after, Interview with the Vampire might scratch that itch. There's some whining, but it's more "existential dread of immortality"-style whining than standard rich people problems.
posted by helloimjennsco at 12:22 PM on September 26, 2017

Response by poster: Y'all really knocked it out of the park and turned my unicorn into a horse with a corncob

What great suggestions so far from everyone, thank you!
posted by lesser weasel at 10:02 PM on September 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you're open to book recommendations as well, you might enjoy Longbourn by Jo Baker, which is sort of a companion to Pride and Prejudice, focusing on the Bennet family's servants rather than the family.
posted by peppermind at 5:47 AM on September 27, 2017

Check out the CanCon (= "Canadian Content," a thing that makes our teevees and radios here occasionally play some things that are not from the USA or UK) of "Sullivan Entertainment," who did the most popular Anne of Green Gables. They also have the somewhat similar "Road to Avonlea," which I was surprised to find totally absorbing, and "Wind at my Back," about a widowed family during the Depression (it does have a rich matriarch, but there is enough hardscrabble in it to avoid it being just a thing to gawk at; wouldn't it be nice to own a mansion, etc). Their "Butterbox Babies" also looks good but I haven't been able to find it. Same with the short-lived Canadian show "Pit Pony." However, a lot of people were fans and it has been a while since I went looking, so someone might have uploaded it or your local library might finally have a DVD. "Emily of New Moon" is also a Lucy Maud Montgomery thing, set in her era. Orphaned child arrives to live with creepy aunt, nice aunt, odd but kind uncle; the whole thing is definitely darker and stranger than the other L.M.M. stuff.

("Road to Avonlea" purchased as a set is crazy-expensive, but out there. It was so popular here we kept getting stuck on library waiting lists for it, so I assume it might be able to be found outside of Canada; I think it and others above also ran on certain "wholesome," "family viewing"-type US networks. The box set says OVER 90 HOURS OF FAMILY VIEWING! and I could see why that was a selling point; it is rare to find a series that both adults and kids can genuinely be equally interested in following. Many families would spend that much to kill off 90 hours over a snowy winter together on the sofa! Well recommended for any MeFites with kids.)
posted by kmennie at 9:07 AM on September 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Anything by alan bleasdale. My god.

nthing Deadwood.

The 1980-90s is sufficiently long ago, that serves for great period drama (!) in the form of procedurals.....e.g.

A very peculiar practice for the late 80s British University system

Cardiac arrest for the 90's NHS
posted by lalochezia at 11:31 AM on September 27, 2017

Also Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith - there's a fair amount of toffs in Tipping but the main character comes from a family of fishmongers, if I recall correctly. Lovely costumes, in any event.
posted by kristi at 10:15 AM on September 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

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