Life after 'Downton Abbey': A survival guide

The water is boiling for tea. The box of Kleenex is open and at the ready, although I am working at keeping my upper lip properly stiff. I'm wearing woolen knickers and spats to get into the period-costume mood, and I've taken a Quaalude so I won't get too exasperated should I have to confront a plot point that repeats or plods along (not really; it was an Ambien).

I am at last ready to discuss how life will go on after Sunday's two-hour U.S. finale of "Downton Abbey" (8 p.m., WTTW-Ch. 11), the highest-rated PBS series of all time, more popular even than pledge-period specials featuring Yanni.

You can read the British press to find out ahead of time what happened, because the finale has aired there, in December. But that would only be fun if, say, your partner or roommate were a "Downton" devotee and you wanted to seem like a psychic as the episode airs. I am not advocating that you do this.

Instead, here's executive producer Gareth Neame on the finale, from a December interview with AdWeek: "I don't think it would be the right mood for a thunderbolt to destroy the Abbey in the last episode. The finale is a compassionate, wonderfully fulfilling episode. Not everyone gets the happy endings, but ultimately we are a positive show. There will be a lot of sadness when the camera pulls away from the castle for the last time."

Yes, sadness. Many in America will miss "Downton" terribly, because for the past six years it wasn't Sunday night in late winter unless we were witnessing Lady Mary Crawley finding new ways to demonstrate that she is a horrid person and Bates and Anna undergoing various tortures at the hands of the show's producers.

Whether you love-watch it, hate-watch it or hate-watch it after initially like-watching it (hand raised here), it's been a remarkable phenomenon. A period drama about disturbances in the life of an English country estate takes by storm a former colony, one where people have cellphones and Netflix yet still seemed to want to settle in each week for that glorious opening shot of the hindquarters of Lord Grantham's Labrador.

Personally, I'm more of a muzzle and forefoot man, but I watched most every week, except for a period during Season 3 when I got so fed up that I considered boycotting everything English, from the muffins to the language. I eventually came crawling back to catch the season in reruns, but that was when my style of viewing shifted to open scoffing interrupted by the occasional, I will admit, moistened eye or heart palpitation. My general point of view on "Downton" in recent years can be summed up as, "Thank God for Maggie Smith to get me through this."

The show filled a need, though. It took us back to a style of television storytelling that many thought had been obliterated by pay cable's perceived demands for full-frontal nudity and language that was even more stark. It serviced a residual fascination with ye olde ways and the class system, the same gene that makes some of us care entirely too much about Prince William and Kate. And it delivered the lesson — oh, boy, did it deliver the lesson — that the times, they do not stand still.

The "Downton Abbey" drinking game would have viewers raise a glass for every acknowledgment that the central Crawley family was the relic of a fading past and that modernity approacheth, with all its climbing hemlines, paid tours of the upper crust's estates and tacit advocacy for a life without footmen. The people playing that game would wake up at about 4 a.m., heads throbbing, bodies sprawled in the vicinity of their preferred TV-viewing furniture, minds made up to play the game next week with seltzer water instead.

So how do we cope in a post-"Downton" era? Here is a handful of ideas:

Read "The Remains of the Day." Read it slowly, luxuriously. Read it 50 pages per week if you'd like to replicate the serial drama viewing experience. Kazuo Ishiguro's note-perfect 1989 novel is a close study of Stevens, a proper English butler, and his between-the-lines affection for the housekeeper at Darlington Hall, his place of employment. If you're thinking of "Downton's" Carson and Mrs. Hughes, well, yes, the similarities have been noted. But "Remains" is much more than that. It's a tale, almost a lampoon, of the British stiff upper lip, the ability to bury feeling under what is known as duty. It's an allegory for changing times not nearly so heavy-handed as "Downton's"; Stevens' employer at Darlington in the book's present day, 1956, is an American with a taste for "bantering," a skill in which Stevens dutifully strives for improvement. And it is a piece of writing as good as you will ever find at matching its tone to its subject matter. Both are dignified, upright, reined-in, and both throb with sub rosa feeling.

Visit "Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times." This exhibition, up through May 8 at Chicago's Driehaus Museum, hangs dozens of "Downton" costumes for fans to try to place — the wall cards will help — and to linger over. Especially well represented are the clotheshorse Mary Crawley and her mother Cora, but there is men's fashion and servants' fashion on hand, too. "Although the show's most reliably interesting character has been Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess, the sisters' grandmother," I wrote in reviewing "Dressing Downton" in early February, "she is most evident in a great purple two-piece day dress seen frequently during the (show's) early years. This is a battleship of a garment, commanding you to yield." The setting, the Driehaus' gilded-age Chicago mansion, is perfect, and visitors who want to linger can pay extra for the thrice daily afternoon tea service.

Come to think of it, do afternoon tea. My wife, who is British by birth, does so in Chicago with friends or her visiting mother at least once a year. Lately, she's been partial to the offering at the Langham, the newish Chicago luxury hotel in the old IBM building, but many Chicago hotels do a tea service, which usually means a set and fairly stiff fee for unlimited small sandwiches, desserts and, of course, the titular beverage. When our family vacationed in London last summer, she made sure we made time for afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason. And while this assemblage of locals and tourists in the peacock-blue accented room atop a swanky department store wasn't exactly "Downton"-esque, there was something charming and otherworldly about the ritual of it. Nibble on a watercress sandwich, sip some Earl Grey and fret about how poor the fox hunting has become on the grounds of your quarter-acre suburban estate.

Go back to the source material, "Upstairs, Downstairs." This 1971- 75 drama was also about an English household, owners and servants, at the beginning of the 20th century, although they were in a London townhouse rather than a Yorkshire castle. It, too, had characters die on the Titanic and all manner of other soap-opera complications. It, too, was a hit in Britain before crossing over to be a sensation here, racking up Emmys and ratings for PBS. Bonus: It had 68 episodes to savor or whatever the correct verb is, versus the paltry 52 for "Downton." You can find "Upstairs, Downstairs" on Hulu or on Amazon Video (with an Acorn TV subscription). Or surely your local library still has a set of it on VHS and maybe even a VCR machine it'll loan you.

Watch a much more deeply satisfying multi-part drama about social class in Britain, the 1995 adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice." Jane Austen's justifiably enduring novel gets perhaps its best video treatment in this late-20th century British series that starred Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. Through six episodes, Ehle's vibrant, fiercely intelligent, decidedly middle-class Elizabeth Bennet butts heads with England's early-19th century caste system through various romantic thrusts and parries involving herself and her sisters. Firth, of course, is Mr. Darcy, the uptight landed gentleman and wet-shirted (in one famous scene) friend and admirer of Lizzie. It's glorious, enveloping stuff, available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, although it also appears that someone has posted some lower-res versions of the episodes to YouTube. And if you haven't read the Austen novel, get on that, as well. If you don't like it, I promise to issue you a full refund for the time spent.

sajohnson@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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