'House of Cards' on Netflix

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright star in 'House of Cards' on Netflix, one of the midseason's highlights. The entire first season available to subscribers Feb. 1 in new business model for TV. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Kimaging / January 5, 2013)

Midseason used to be a time for networks to put on series that weren’t good enough to make the fall lineup. The thinking was: The money has been spent to make these episodes, so let’s try to get something out of them by plugging them for shows that have bombed.

But thanks to cable and huge changes in the way that people access and watch TV, midseason is in many ways now the best season for TV viewing. This is especially true when it comes to drama, the genre that network television has by and large abandoned to cable, PBS and now Web operations like Netflix because it has been deemed too expensive and risky for efficient (read: cheap) programming.

The wave of winter shows that arrives this week bears prime examples of this TV truth. From the traditional, big-budget, Brit-cum-PBS halls of “Downton Abbey,” which starts Season 3 tonight, to the edgy, Baltimore-made remake of “House of Cards,” debuting Feb. 1 in one instant-access online swoop at Netflix, here are 10 midseason productions worth paying attention to.

‘Downton Abbey’ PBS, 9 Sunday. As if the first two seasons weren’t successful enough, the producers have upped the star power with Shirley MacLaine and Tim Pigott-Smith. I might be the only critic in America thinking this way, but I am more eager to see Pigott-Smith than MacLaine.

The American actress does, however, have the larger role as Martha Levinson, a widowed American heiress and the mother of Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), Countess of Grantham. Martha arrives for the wedding of Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).

A wedding, a fortune lost, Downton Abbey again in jeopardy of succumbing to the changing times, more conflict for Lady Mary (that’s how she rolls — just ask Mr. Pamuk), a couple of deaths: The quotient of melodrama is through the roof.

But smart people, who otherwise have nothing but contempt for TV, lap it up.

Why?

I believe it’s all about social class and the kind of fairy-tale fantasy of privilege it offers in these uncertain economic times for weary and worried Brit and American viewers.

Me, I’m the Irish chauffeur with an attitude or the disgruntled third assistant footman who despises all the toffee-nosed, high-and-mighty people living the life of Riley upstairs while I slave away.

But I’ll be watching.

‘The Staircase’ Sundance, 10 p.m. Monday. This eight-part documentary that debuted in 2005 is one of the finest works of nonfiction ever done on American TV. It shows that a great storyteller doesn’t have to trick out the truth with invented actions and dialogue.

Oscar-winning director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade went inside the North Carolina murder trial of author Michael Peterson, whose wife, Kathleen, was found dead on the stairway of their Durham home. Did Peterson kill her — or did she accidentally fall down the stairs, as he claimed?

The dance Peterson plays with de Lestrade’s camera is mesmerizing. Guess who wins. Sundance replays the documentary series starting Monday and then offers two new episodes March 7 and 14 that update the story. I cannot wait.

‘1600 Penn’ NBC, 9:30 p.m. Thursday. This family comedy, set in the White House, comes from Baltimore native Jason Winer (“Modern Family”), Josh Gad (“Book of Mormon”) and Jon Lovett, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama.

In writing about a sneak preview that aired in December, I said how much I liked the idea of TV dealing with the generational phenomenon of “children” in their 20s returning home after college. Gad plays the screwed-up, but sweet and emotionally wise adult-child with gusto. (See Winer interview below.)

‘Banshee’ Cinemax, 10 p.m. Friday. A master thief assumes the identity of the sheriff of Banshee, Pa., so that he can continue his criminal ways. Before you say no way, you should know that Alan Ball (“Six Feet Under” and “True Blood”) is executive producer of this series by Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler.

There is no shortage of sex and violence. But there also promises to be some very keen insights into post-modern identity, memory and small-town American history and life. I am going to give this series a few weeks before making a call.

‘Girls’ Season 2. HBO, 9 p.m. Jan. 13. I think it is brilliant that commercial American TV found an author in her 20s in Lena Dunham and gave her full voice to speak for people in their 20s. Not all of them, of course, just some of the more interesting ones.