Watching PBS’s “Downton Abbey,” which just returned for a fourth season, can feel like reading a novel. The show has all the trappings of a literary classic — the shooting parties, the shooting glances, cruel entails, the devotional that is tea. Most literary of all: While Carson passionately decants wine instead of Mrs. Hughes, while Lady Mary rolls her eyes at absolutely everyone, and while Edith makes another bad choice that might harm the family’s standing, they all use proper grammar.
And so the “Masterpiece” hit has become a prompt for fans to dig into the wealth of great period novels out there. In an interview last year, Julian Fellowes told me he was inspired while writing “Downton Abbey” by the fiction of his two favorite authors, Anthony Trollope and Edith Wharton, both of whom took on the same repression, class division, and financial insecurity that plague Fellowes’s characters. He talked about his reverence for Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited ” too, saying, “We’re coming at a similar subject matter from a different direction.”
“Downton Abbey” also makes a natural pairing with E. M. Forster’s “Howards End,” which confronts the social shifts of the Edwardian era through the progressive Schlegel sisters, and with Kazuo Ishiguro’s sad, lovely “The Remains of the Day,” in which a loyal English butler reassesses his career. Both of these extraordinary novels are fairly well-known, particularly since they were adapted for the screen by Merchant-Ivory. Less known is a flawed but fascinating novel called “The Edwardians” by Vita Sackville-West who had a passionate affair with Virginia Woolf and who served as the model for Woolf’s “Orlando.” It carries strong shades of “Downton Abbey” in its look at a proudly static world forced into change.
“The Edwardians” is a close-up portrait of the excessive lifestyle of the aristocracy in a country estate called Chevron (modeled after Knole, the Sackville-West grand country house). Amid the marriages of convenience and the frivolousness that define his world, Sebastian, the 19-year-old heir to Chevron, tries to live by convention but has numerous illicit love affairs. He is living out the tension between playing your given part in society — staying true to the rules and culture you were born into — and becoming an independent person, a tension that also defines “Downton Abbey,” both upstairs and down.
A TV show doesn’t need to have Brit cred and a house with 35 fireplaces, though, to inspire a reading list. A few other series that are about to have midseason premieres coordinate nicely with books to turn to between episodes.
“Girls” returns for a third season on Sunday, and you don’t want to supplement it with “Sex and the City” by Candace Bushnell, whose characters are as fashion-obsessed as Lena Dunham’s aren’t. Better to turn to Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,” which Bushnell has named as the inspiration for “Sex and the City.” In “The Group,” McCarthy chronicles the post-college life of eight Vassar graduates. “Girls” captures a time, a place, and a cultural moment for certain kinds of contemporary young women, with a satiric edge as did “The Group,” which was published in 1963 but is set in 1933.
But it is the contrast between the two worlds that is instructive and profound. In “The Group” the women desire independence in a world that refuses it; in “Girls,” independence is a birthright for the women and, in some cases, a burden. They still feel like, well, girls. Hannah and her friends would much rather be supported — emotionally, as well as financially — by their parents.
HBO is premiering an unofficial companion series to “Girls” called “Looking” on Jan. 19. It’s about three gay male friends in contemporary San Francisco, grappling with love, sex, loneliness, and the rigors of parking on hills. The obvious companion read: Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” books, which also feature gay characters and are set in San Francisco. But “Tales of the City” has many straight characters, too; one of the charms of the series is the blending of cultures. “Looking” zeroes in more closely on gay life, in the way Andrew Holleran’s “Dancer From the Dance” did back in 1978.
What’s most interesting is the contrast between the decadence of “Dancer From the Dance,” as two men party and disco their way through the hedonistic gay circuit in New York, and the more careful and emotionally sensitive approach to life taken by the trio of friends in “Looking.” One is life before AIDS in America, the other is life during the safer years, eyes still imprinted with the afterimage of tragedy.
The madcap, yet moving “Shameless,” which returns Sunday on Showtime, is set in contemporary Chicago, but it rhymes unexpectedly with Charles Dickens’s Victorian England. The show is about the six Gallagher children, who’ve been abandoned by their mother and whose father, played by William H. Macy, is a useless alcoholic. The scrappy kids pull together to keep their household going, with no help — and a bit of harm — from social services.
The theme of a country that fails its poor children is straight out of Dickens; the United States is as shameless as the Gallagher clan. In “Oliver Twist,” the little hero falls through the cracks of the system, like the Gallaghers, who have also been known to pick a pocket or two. Yes, we all know the outline of Dickens’s story from the many movie and stage versions, but there are a few subplots that don’t appear in most of the adaptations.
As critics have noted since the start of the cable drama revolution, reading Dickens has some overlap with watching TV. Dickens wrote novels as serials for periodicals, and each chapter was like a TV episode. Dickens’s stories unfolded over time, as they do on TV — unless, of course, the Victorian audience decided to hold off until the end, so they could binge-read.