Couch Patrol: Masters and Servants, Unite!

Masterpiece Classic’s Upstairs Downstairs

Sunday, 9 p.m. (PBS)

The new season of Masterpiece Classic’s Upstairs Downstairs begins in 1938, with a British radio broadcaster saying, “It is hoped that an agreement can be reached regarding Herr Hitler’s attempt to…”

We all know where this is heading, and we’ve headed there many times before in British drama. But Upstairs Downstairs does a marvelous job of balancing the domestic sphere and the geopolitical sphere in the pre-war period, to the point where the miniseries could easily be retitled Inside Outside.

At 165 Eaton Place, the servants still scramble when the bell rings, and the masters retain their aristocratic bearing. When the world shifts beneath England’s feet, however, the social relations shift as well. Masters and servants must work together to fight the Germans, since poison gas doesn’t really respect class distinctions.

“We come and go through different doors, and we eat our meals at different tables,” says Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes). “But we all give 165 Eaton Place as our address. That means we are on the same side.”

Maybe England does have a chance of beating this Herr Hitler after all.



Thursday, 10 p.m. (CBS)

In recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations, Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch have proven that Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective can be creatively updated. But CBS’ new drama reminds you how dull Holmes can be. Elementary tries to hook us with a high concept: Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is a modern-day Brit in New York City, where he’s recovering from drug addiction. Sidekick Mr. Watson is now Ms. Watson (Lucy Liu), his rehab counselor.

Elementary fails to rethink Holmes from the inside out, as the Cumberbatch version does. It also lacks the humor of the Downey version, with no sparks between Miller and Liu. No, this is your basic police procedural with a quirky hero, though here the quirks are predictable, 125-year-old ones. There’s little thrill in watching Sherlock slog through his deduction routine, duly amazing the dimwitted police.

Miller merely plays at being an arrogant genius, rather than incarnating one. “Sometimes I hate it when I’m right,” he sniffs.

Elementary makes you hate it, too.


The Rumble In The Air-Conditioned Auditorium

Saturday, 8 p.m. (

Much like Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, cable hosts Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly have been lobbing hand grenades into each other’s camps during the presidential campaign. And much like Obama and Romney, Comedy Central’s Stewart now comes face to face with Fox News’ O’Reilly in a televised debate. But there’s a difference between the two showdowns: You probably wouldn’t pay a dime to see Obama vs. Romney, but you’d happily shell out $4.95 to see Stewart vs. O’Reilly. Their debate will be fun, not just a list of predictable talking points.

The pay-per-view, internet-only Rumble In The Air-Conditioned Auditorium will be moderated by CNN news anchor E.D. Hill. Expect Stewart to be even more amazing than usual—though even if he wins, I doubt he’ll get elected president. Dammit.


Independent Lens

Monday, 10 p.m. (PBS)

As Goes Janesville takes an up-close look at the Wisconsin city devastated by the closing of its GM plant in 2008. The documentary goes into the kitchens of laid-off workers, who are scrambling to remain in the middle class. It also goes into the boardrooms of Janesville’s corporate executives, who desperately brainstorm ideas for creating new jobs.

Filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein remains admirably neutral in his portraits of the laborers (i.e., Democrats) and the CEOs (i.e., Republicans), moving beyond the stereotypes of each group. They’re all capable of acting courageously in response to the crisis: the laborers trying to learn new skills, and the CEOs trying to attract new businesses to the area.

But just when you think Janesville citizens might pull together to solve their economic problems, all hell breaks loose with the 2010 election of Gov. Scott Walker. Walker pushes through his extreme anti-labor measures, and suddenly Janesville—along with the rest of the state—splits into warring factions. Lichtenstein includes the notorious footage of Walker explaining the “divide-and-conquer” strategy he plans to use against unions.

We’ve seen the footage before, but it’s especially painful in this context. After getting to know the people of Janesville, we don’t want to see them divided. And we really don’t want to see them conquered.


Animal Practice

Wednesday, 8 p.m. (NBC)

Where to set your would-be kooky new sitcom? How about an animal hospital, run by a doctor (Justin Kirk) who dresses his pet monkey in scrubs? And staffed by nut jobs who get wrapped up in boa constrictors?

Yes, Animal Practice strains pretty hard for its kookiness. You don’t find yourself laughing, nor do you find yourself drawn to Kirk’s arrogant George Coleman. George spends entire episodes disparaging pet owners who don’t meet his high standards for primate behavior. “I’m not a fan of most people,” he says.

I suspect most people—aka viewers—won’t be a fan of him.