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The other British empire: ‘Masterpiece’ turns 50

Damian Lewis as King Henry VIII in the "Masterpiece" series "Wolf Hall."
Damian Lewis as King Henry VIII in the "Masterpiece" series "Wolf Hall."Ed Miller

When most nighttime TV dramas turn 50, they usually — oh wait, what’s that? Only one has survived for that long, week in and week out, there for literate American audiences regardless of the trends of the moment, one foot in global history and literature and the other in the much-badgered medium of television, featuring enough waist-strangling corsets to put Weight Watchers out of business?

Yes, only one. PBS’s “Masterpiece” will be 50 years old Sunday, and that’s a most excellent thing. It’s quietly in league with the other influential institutions of the medium — “60 Minutes” (53 years), “Monday Night Football” (50), “Saturday Night Live” (46) — as the first of its kind, a pioneer of sorts, and an endurance runner. Downplay the popularity of period costume dramas, which “Masterpiece” ushered into the American programming mix, at your own peril. It’s hard to imagine “Bridgerton,” or “The Crown,” two current period hits on Netflix, without “Masterpiece” as a precedent, just as it’s hard to name many news magazines that weren’t somehow shaped by “60 Minutes.”


On Jan. 10, 1971, the anthology series premiered with “The First Churchills,” a 12-episode drama about Winston Churchill’s 17th-century ancestors. The show had been devised and produced by WGBH, the Boston PBS channel, after the 1967 BBC adaptation of John Galsworthy’s “Forsyte Saga” novels had met with unexpected success when the series aired on public television in the States in 1970. The goal going forward: to regularly curate and import good British series, many of them starring some of the best up-and-coming British actors — in recent years, for example, Damian Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Carey Mulligan, Tom Hardy, and Keira Knightley — as well as the stalwarts. The show was dubbed “Masterpiece Theatre,” the British spelling of “theater” a critical flourish symbolizing the show’s roots; it was rebranded down to simply “Masterpiece” in 2008 when the British became implicit.

Curating and importing — they’re now de rigueur on TV. Even before the pandemic left TV outlets desperately seeking already-made product from other countries, streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix had been feverishly bringing British and foreign-language series to America in the manner of “Masterpiece.” They’ve found particular success with the kinds of British mysteries, including “Broadchurch,” “The Fall,” and “Happy Valley,” that have been airing for decades on “Mystery!,” PBS’s 1980 “Masterpiece” spinoff (which was folded into “Masterpiece” in 2008). Certainly “Masterpiece” has focused on the less terminally gruesome shows of the genre, with the likes of Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” and “Miss Marple,” but some of its mystery imports, notably Helen Mirren’s “Prime Suspect” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Wallander,” have been sufficiently grim.


It’s strange to think of “Masterpiece” as cutting edge, isn’t it? The show’s reputation is as a definitively old-school TV establishment, the one at the opposite end of the spectrum from “pop culture,” the rare series that anti-television types are willing to admit to watching. It’s seen as bait for Anglophiles. Phrases such as “the ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ set” are often used as shorthand for older, stodgier TV viewers, the ones who aren’t of great value to advertisers, even if they’re willing to donate to PBS. The show has been on the receiving end of countless parodies over the years, from “Sesame Street” (see: “Monsterpiece Theatre”) to “Saturday Night Live” and “In Living Color.” Parodies of “Downton Abbey” — the “Sesame Street” one is called “Upside Downton Abbey” — practically form a genre of their own.


And yet, “Downton Abbey.” The Julian Fellowes series, which premiered here in 2011, became the highest-rated “Masterpiece,” and the most-nominated non-US series in Emmy history. It was a significant sensation in the 2010s, as it drew in younger viewers than the usual “Masterpiece” audience, and it finished up the decade with a movie extension that was a box office hit. If “Masterpiece” had seemed to some like an antique, the “Downton” phenomenon quickly shut them down. The same can be said for Cumberbatch’s hugely popular “Sherlock” series that premiered in 2010.

Naturally, massive hits don’t come the way of “Masterpiece” often, but they do arrive; in between, there are shows — both adaptations and, like “Downton,” originals — that range from masterful (“Bleak House”) and transporting (“Victoria”) to riveting (the recent “Elizabeth Is Missing” starring Glenda Jackson) and sunnily escapist (“The Durrells in Corfu” and the new “All Creatures Great and Small” premiering Sunday). Like most anthology series, the “Masterpiece” output is uneven. For every unexpected treat (“Any Human Heart” in 2011), there is, say, an unnecessary remake of a Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novel or a thriller such as “Flesh and Blood,” which ended on a cliffhanger with no sign of a second season in sight. Still, the overall average is good enough to keep me watching and hoping.

It has to be hard for the “Masterpiece” team, now that their competition includes many more, and far wealthier, TV outlets than I can name here. The PBS show made period imports viable, and it provided entree into TV for those perhaps more wedded to reading, long before scripted TV became the more challenging and intellectually sound place we know now. But it must fight behemoths such as Netflix and Amazon, these days, to acquire the best. Fellowes’s follow-ups to “Downton,” for example, have not ended up on “Masterpiece.” “Belgravia” is on Epix, “The English Game” is on Netflix, “Doctor Thorne” is on Amazon, and the forthcoming “Gilded Age” will be on HBO. Series that seem as though they absolutely belong on “Masterpiece” — I’m thinking of “War & Peace” in 2016, which was on A&E, Lifetime, and History, or “Parade’s End” of 2013 and “Gentleman Jack” of 2019, both of which were on HBO.


Alas, the shoulders of giants do sometimes get trampled upon.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.