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Not Your Parents' "Masterpiece Theatre"

For some, PBS' long-running showcase series Masterpiece Theatre has always had a bit of a reputation of being comprised of stuffy, drawing room dramas and dreary period pieces.

Personally, I've never felt that way. Sure, it's known for its well produced costume dramas, but it's also the series that introduced Chief Detective Inspector Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect) to the States and lately it's been offering unique and engaging material that ordinarily might not have been within its original purview.

Last year, the trend started with the superbly gripping serialized drama Bleak House (nominated for virtually every miniseries award on the planet), which proved that Dickens' serpentine story of greed, long buried secrets, and lawsuits had as much in common with soaps as The Young & The Restless. It also raised the bar for British costumed dramas, presenting the story framed within stunning shot compositions and quick-cut editing that gave this timeless plot a modern edginess and distinctive visual style.

Lately, the series has continued the trend, bringing over the best and the brightest of high end British television, with a stylish and contemporary twist (though never totally losing those beloved costumes). In the past few weeks, Masterpiece Theatre offered a two part adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's classic novel Jane Eyre, starring Ruth Wilson, Toby Stephens, Christina Cole, and Francesca Annis that granted the adaptation a heavy patina of Gothic dread while not skimping on the tortured romance between Jane and the beastly Edward Fairfax. (No coincidence that it was also co-directed by Bleak House's Susanna White.)

Last night, Masterpiece Theatre premiered an adaptation of Phillip Pullman's The Sally Lockhart Mysteries: The Ruby in the Smoke, a Victorian murder mystery from the author of the groundbreaking series His Dark Materials (the first of which will be released as a motion picture starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman this December) which pits young Londoner Sally Lockhart (Doctor Who's Billie Piper) in a quest to solve the riddle behind a mysterious blood-soaked jewel while battling off assassins and thieves after the gem. Ruby is the first in a quartet of novels and the sequel, The Tiger in the Well, is due on British television later this year.

But what I am most excited about is next week's adaptation of Dracula, starring Marc Warren (State of Play, Doctor Who, Band of Brothers) as the titular bloodsucker and David Suchet (Poirot) as his nemesis Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. (Also look for Doctor Who's Sophia Myles to turn up as victim Lucy Westenra.) Said to delve into themes of sexuality and disease that writer Bram Stoker only hinted at, this Dracula is a lush production with a modern sensibility that is sure to entertain and captivate.

As always, check local listings and times. But as for me, I can't wait for Sunday nights now to get my fix. And when was the last time you heard any one say that about Masterpiece Theatre?

What's On Tonight

8 pm: How I Met Your Mother/The Class (CBS); Deal or No Deal (NBC); Everybody Hates Chris/All of Us (CW); Wife Swap (ABC); Prison Break (FOX); Wicked Wicked Games (MyNet)

9 pm: Two and a Half Men/Rules of Engagement (CBS); Heroes (NBC); Girlfriends/The Game (CW); Supernanny (ABC); 24 (FOX); Watch Over Me (MyNet)

10 pm: CSI: Miami (CBS); Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC); What About Brian (ABC)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: Everybody Hates Chris.

Everybody Hates Chris, recently picked up for a third season, returns tonight with a new batch of episodes. On tonight's episode ("Everybody Hates Snow Day"), Chris accidentally ends up going to school on a snow day, only to get trapped inside with Principal Edwards (guest star Jason Alexander) until Rochelle and Julius are tracked down. Worst. Day. Ever.

9 pm: 24.

It's 9 am on Day Six of 24. While FOX doesn't give us much in the way of previews, President Palmer (D.B. Woodside) and his advisers continue to deal with the, er, fallout from the nuclear blast in Valencia sans Karen Hayes, Jack is reunited with his estranged father, Jack's bro is a bad, bad man, and Lennox's plan involves Vice President Noah Daniels (Powers Boothe).

10 pm: Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on the Travel Channel.

On tonight's episode, Tony travels to Telvisionary's turf, namely Los Angeles, where it would be sinful if the chef/author/culinary enfant terrible didn't stop by Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles. But he does. With Jerry Stahl. So it's okay.


Jennifer said…
I just watched (and reviewed on my blog) the recent Jane Eyre adaptation yesterday, and I DVRed the Sally Lockhart one as well. I've also heard that later this year they're going to do a Jane Austen festival with new adaptations which I'm really excited about as well.
"Bleak House" was outstanding. I Tivo'd "Ruby in the Smoke" and am really looking forward to that and "Dracula." The Brits really know how to do their mini-series!
TxGowan said…
Can we talk about 24 a little? I am so disappointed in the Karen Hayes storyline. She initially showed some fight, but then almost immediately thereafter became the quickest pushover in 24 history. I'm sure the writers have some reason for wanting her in LA, but it just seemed awfully convenient that she rolled over so quickly.

And another corrupt vice-president? C'mon! Vet these people!
The CineManiac said…
I am so sad that I missed the always lovely Billie Piper (Who will sorely be missed by me on the Excellent Doctor Who) in Sally Lockhart, but I thank you for the reminder of Dracula. I read this was coming months ago and I have to say the top selling point was the even lovelier Sophia Myles, who helped make one of my favorite episodes of DW and helped cement David Tennant as the Doctor in my mind.
Although I must say that Marc Warren as Dracula seems interesting to me as I've seen him on both the aforementioned Doctor Who and the British series Hustle, and he doesn't seem the Dracula type, but I look forward to seeing what he does with the role.

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