The least forgivable thing about Downton Abbey, even in its delicious early seasons, has been its romanticization of servants’ lives in a “great house” like Downton. Reading about the actual status quo for servants during the time period gives the lie to Julian Fellowes’ idea that there was anything pleasant about “service,” particularly for those on the lowest rungs. It was a miserable life, spent at the beck and call of others, with little hope for leisure or advancement.
From the opening scenes of Comedy Central’s Another Period, a broad and vulgar spoof of period dramas, this common false picture is mercilessly torn apart. Servants do everything from undress an incestuous pair of lovers to pluck bloody fowls to endure being re-christened “Chair” by those they serve. They eat one meal per day, known as “All Meal,” and clean up when the family members, dissatisfied with their own food, spit it out, or dash their plates to the floor. “You got egg upon my snood!” one family member shouts at a maid, although it was his own wife who upended the tray of eggs the maid proffered.
This is the best aspect of the series, a loose spoof of Downton — although it’s set in Providence, Rhode Island at the turn of the century, a decidedly Whartonian milieu (we can recognize the Newport setting from The Age of Innocence or the opening sequence of all-time-great miniseries The Buccaneers). Essentially, this is the world of American new money that Cora Crawley, née Levinson, left when she crossed the pond to become mistress of Downton. But this is Comedy Central, so don’t expect authenticity. With a reality TV-style mix of direct addresses, flashbacks, and hip hop-scored interstitial montages (the theme itself is written by Snoop Dogg), Another Period doesn’t even come close to attempting verisimilitude. Targeting Real Housewives and Kardashians as much as it hits the Merchant Ivory/Masterpiece set, it’s often as broad as a Victorian hoop skirt and as ribald as the banter in a bawdy-house.
The Bellecourts, the series’ stars, are heirs to the “great Magnet Magnate, Commodore Bellacourt” (there’s also a raccoon-tie tycoon). On the surface, they want to move from being nouveau-riche arrivistes to being accepted by the local aristocracy, known as the Newport 400. But on a more basic level, they want to be as selfish as humanly possible — particularly in the cases of the characters played by co-creators Natasha Leggero (the conniving Lillian) and Riki Lindhome (her dim-bulb sister Beatrice). These two are clear standouts, as is Michael Ian Black, playing the ultra-officious butler Peepers, who could give Downton’s Carson and Stevens, the repressed butler of The Remains of the Day, a run for their money. Also appearing are Christina Hendricks, as Celine, the maid (hereafter known as “Chair”) who has a secret, and Brett Gelman, last seen in the Mad Men finale, as a very creepy under-servant who knows her secret.
The show has one obvious flaw. As much as I appreciate vulgar, anachronistic humor in my parodies (Mel Brooks and Monty Python are personal favorites), the show’s array of expected sex jokes — sibling incest! Two husbands having a gay affair! Butt stuff! — and a slight over-reliance on slapstick and gross-out humor are too much of an obvious play for the Comedy Central audience. Besides, Broad City covers the same territory more slyly and originally. Yet Another Period‘s propensity to wallow in sophomoric humor is fortunately contrasted by some of the best moments, which involve equally silly but more surprisingly absurd gags like a servants’ bell devoted only to custard, or lawn-boating, which is just what it sounds like: a servant pulling the family members around the lawn on a boat.
When Another Period directly or indirectly takes on the conventions of period drama and reality TV, it brings on the belly laughs. The morphine drip administered by the servants to Dodo, the family matriarch, is a favorite moment: “We need to achieve the perfect balance between hallucination and death,” Peepers instructs Chair as she readies the needle. Anyone who knows their 19th-century literature is in hysterics at this point — and, in fact, “hysteria” itself is the subject of a separate gag. In the second episode, a long riff on our current discourse about rape humor (when it comes to “ravish jokes,” one character says, “there is no line,” while another gives an encouraging talk on “ravish culture”) actually does a decent job reminding us of how deeply ingrained our harmful cultural mores are. And a sequence that involves Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan getting trashed on cocaine wine could have been horrible but squeezes by, mostly because cocaine wine — which, don’t worry, is “mostly cocaine” — is a delightful comedic concept.
Another Period has the potential to grow into something as clever in its own way as the most topical and beloved shows Comedy Central has to offer, if it can truly embrace its identity as a farcical spoof and move away from the Tosh-like territory.