At the outset, Another Period seems to be a spoof of Downton Abbey, because of its upstairs/downstairs motif. Yet, underneath all the pomp and circumstance of a period drama lies a biting satire about reality TV, one which points its damning quill at everything from Real Housewives of whatever county to Keeping Up with the Kardashians. In fact, it’s the latter series that seems to provide the strongest undercurrent for Another Period’s storyline. With three sisters (one hated for not being as beautiful as the other two), a brother, and a controlling mother, it’s easy to draw parallels between Another Period and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The show clearly has fun making fun of contemporary wealth and all its trappings. That kind of wealth, as well as the attitudes, expectations and reality shows it often breeds, becomes the fodder for the first episode.
Created by Natasha Legero (from Burning Love) and Riki Lindhome (from Garfunkel and Oates), Another Period follows the lives of the well-to-do Bellacourts, who live in turn of the century Newport. Their father, the Commodore (David Koechner), is a magnet magnate. After learning that their best friends the Claudette sisters have died of tuberculosis, scheming sisters Lillian (Legero) and Beatrice (Lindhome) see a way into their dream of being part of the “Newport 400,” aka “the 400 most important white people in all of America.” That sets into motion an idea to host a party for the Marquis de Sainsbury (Thomas Lennon), who heads the club and will be the deciding factor as to whether the Bellacourt sisters make it in.
As the sisters go about making preparations for their illustrious guest, which include making sure their massive bushes have been recently perfumed (it is the 1900’s after all and personal grooming “down there” had not yet found a friend in the razor or the wax strip), a new servant girl arrives. Of all the characters, Celine (Christina Hendricks) serves as the foil to the hyperbolic antics that run amuck both upstairs and downstairs. A sweet, quiet servant girl, her moniker doesn’t jive well with the family Bellacourt. After meeting Celine in the hallway, where the family’s butler Mr. Peepers (Michael Ian Black) introduces her, the family agrees “Celine” is a mite too fancy for her station. Lillian, holding a Chihuahua with a curly golden doll’s wig named Mayor Cutie, suggests “Barb.” Her mother, Dodo Bellacourt (Paget Brewster), doesn’t agree, since she once had a cat named Barb. They finally land on renaming her “Chair” after Beatrice sees a chair sitting in the hallway.
It’s this kind of foolish humor that punctuates the pilot most often. The show struggles to find its footing in the pilot, but there are glimpses of hope in between the more inane jokes. Walking the line between period drama and reality TV show, it uses that middle ground to make fun of the issues that affected people at the time (hysteria, morphine addiction), as well as the significant distinction existent between upper-class wealth and their lower-class servants. When Mr. Peepers takes Celine downstairs to the servant’s quarters and introduces her to her room, a dark, barren cell with only a bed, he informs her, “This is where you’ll be living if you play your cards right for the next 40 years, alone.”
Beatrice and her brother Frederick (Jason Ritter) meet to have sex, proclaiming how very secret and alone they are only to have the camera pull back and reveal a room full of servants. On hand to undress and prepare their masters for bed, the servants’ presence in the room underscores their second-class status; Beatrice and Frederick do not think of them as anything more than furniture. That joke, and the comedy of watching the lengthy time it takes to undress first Beatrice and then Frederick while the other waits in sexual anticipation, is genuinely funny. Ritter and Lindhome have sharp comedic timing and play the scene well, letting pauses serve their purpose. But the humor they’ve built becomes undercut by the scene’s incest. It’s the same problem throughout the show: When a joke lands, it really lands, but sometimes its set-up takes an odd, unfunny turn.
Paget Brewster as Dodo Bellacourt, the family matriarch, channels a first class impression of Maggie Smith from Downton Abbey, but of course puts her own irreverent spin on playing mother to four ridiculous child-adults. Brewster steals every scene she’s in thanks to her significant acting chops and willingness to have fun in this absurdist setting. Commenting on her ugly eldest daughter Hortense, called “Hor” (just say it) for short by the family, she tells the camera in an interview that her daughter “suffers from a variety of ailments, from photo sensitivity to thigh heft. One can only hope she’ll live a mercifully short life.” It’s not only the line by Brewster’s delivery, replete with a refined if stuffy accent, that cuts to the comedic quick.
Where actors like Brewster manage to strike a note of absurd realness, in which their character’s absurdity is based in reality, their work strikes a far funnier note than those who rely on caricature or hyperbole. In fact, it’s the shows hyperbolic moments, or at least the sheer number of them, that wears thin. Screaming excessively at servants plays funny once, maybe twice, but not much more. In the same vein, when the Bellacourts finally hold their party and serve their guests, who include Hortense’s friends Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, cocaine wine, the night devolves into a frenzied mess. It quickly bypasses hilarious physical comedy and lands squarely in the realm of overkill. If the show can balance its commentary about life in the 1900’s, period dramas, and contemporary reality TV shows starring the attention-hungry, it’s got the star power to make this a fun summer show. If it continues to go the way of exaggeration for exaggeration’s sake then it will quickly wear out its welcome.
It’s a show that relies heavily on its all-star cast. Previous spoofs with this level of comedic power like E!’s Burning Love need those famous faces and their comedic ability, but also successfully lampoon The Bachelor and The Bachelorette franchises. They effectively oscillate between absurdity, commentary and hyperbole. With Another Period, that success is not as pronounced, though the possibility lingers beneath the surface. If the show continues looking beneath the surface of both period dramas and contemporary reality TV, and the comedy that lies betwixt the two, it will find its voice.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance writer specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter.