Downtown Abbey is to the British costume drama what Game of Thrones is to the fantasy epic. Which is to say that any show remotely like it will be compared to the original. And so we land on Around the World in 80 Days, the latest screen adaptation of the Jules Verne novel, which David Tennant and premieres on PBS this Sunday. On the surface the new series would seem to have little in common with Downton Abbey, the first being a globe-trotting adventure, and the second a class-conscious soap opera. But it's the prestige and cultural prominence of Downton Abbey that Around the World in 80 Days is chasing, and there are early signs it could succeed.
If you've never read the novel — or seen any of the several film adaptations, including the 1956 film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture — the entire plot is right there in the title. Phileas Fogg (Tennant) is an English gentleman of leisure who gets goaded into a wager that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. Fogg's reasons for making this trip are a subject of inquiry throughout; is this really merely about some smoking-room bet he made with another rich arsehole, or or there something else motivating Fogg? He's never been much of an adventurer and is described by a friend in the first episode as "the most timid, unprepared man in Christendom." But now he's on a train, then a boat, and then up in a hot air balloon trying to get around the world and back to London by Christmas Eve. His companions are his new valet, Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma), a crafty little hustler who swindles his way into Fogg's employ after carousing and brawling his way out of his job as a waiter at Fogg's gentlemen's club; and Abigail Fix (Leonine Benesch), a would-be reporter looking to break free of her newspaper-owning aristocratic father, who is one of Fogg's closest friends. The three make for a rather ragtag group, which is a great part of the fun as they traverse the Italian alps, the Suez Canal, the Egyptian desert, and further around the world.
So how does this show that's clearly very unconcerned with protocol at fancy dinner parties compare with Downton Abbey? Here are a few points of commonality:
This is the broadest possible comparison between both shows, but it holds some validity. Back when Downton Abbey was such a sensation in the U.S., a lot of British folks were kind of amused that we Americans were so complimentary and deferential to this show that, to them, was kind of soapy trash. Whether or not you agree with that sentiment, there's at least the possibility that we graft a lot of prestige onto things that speak in an English lilt. And so here is David Tennant, whose British-ness so captivated audiences during his stint as Doctor Who and, in less delightful circumstances, on the crime procedural Broadchurch. There's no reason not to believe that American audiences won't go nuts for him as an industrious globetrotter with murky motives.
So much of the fascination with Downton Abbey boiled down to that house. What a fascinating and enviable manse it was, from its drawing rooms and insanely long dining table to those servants quarters and their innumerable spots for whispered conversations. Around the World in 80 Days has nothing approaching a set with that much intrigue. Instead what it has iis a dizzying set of locations, most of which were filmed in South Africa and Romania during the pandemic. But from precarious mountain paths to treacherous deserts, Fogg and his cohort end up doing some enviable traveling, especially at a time when traveling is a challenge for many. As Fogg, Passepartout, and Fix go on, they end up being pursued by a man hired by the man Fogg wagered against to stop them, upping the intrigue factor all the more.
But the greatest appeal of Around the World in 80 Days may be its episodic nature. It's hard to imagine a narrative that lends itself to episodic TV better than this one, with each location along the way serving as a setting for a new story. Some of these are daring adventure stories, some are more grounded, most of them feature characters our trio meets along the way. Passepartout encounters the ghosts of his past amid civil unrest in Paris. Fix is confronted with disillusionment in her father in Egypt. Fogg reveals a morsel about his own deep heartbreak in India. Nothing is all that surprising, especially in the early going, as these three near-strangers end up becoming a reluctant trio, and there are few better ways to forge a bone than whilst traversing picturesque locales.
One of the early points of interest in Downton Abbey was the romance between Bates and Anna. Remember that? Remember when we weren't completely sick of those two and instead were actively invested in whether he'd quit being weird about his leg injury or whatever and let this good woman love him? Anyway, not to scare anyone off, but there is a twinge of Bates in Phileas Fogg, at least when it comes to the deep romantic trauma that's clearly haunting him. Tennant is a hugely magnetic actor and he sells Fogg's motivations so subtly at first that you can't help but drawn into what's really going on with him.
A big part of Downton Abbey's success as a prestige series in America was its stab at social relevance. This was a show that marked the end of one era of English aristocracy and marched towards a future of women's suffrage and Irish chauffeurs marrying into the family and such. The conflict between aging traditions and the tumult of the future not only drove storylines but it also allowed viewers to think their trashy British soap was an elevated meditation on class in the early 20th century. Around the World in 80 Days is also quite conscious of the times in which we live, and as such its storylines make a careful point to acknowledge that there is something quite complicated about an English gentleman stomping around the world through the footsteps of the British Empire. The series is no sweeping rewrite of history, of course. Fogg is pretty oblivious to his privilege and colonialist attitudes, even as we in the audience roll our eyes as he condescends to a woman in India about everything the British Empire has done for her country.
Remember when Shirley MacLaine was on Downton Abbey? Around the World in 80 Days doesn't have anyone as high caliber as an Academy Award winner in its first few episodes (although it would be oddly appropriate if they too cast MacLaine, since she starred in the 1956 movie), but the third episode does feature the wonderful actress Lindsay Duncan, whom you may remember from TV shows like Rome or The Leftovers or films like About Time. She plays an exiled English society woman whom Fogg, Fix, and Passepartout encounter in Africa, and she delivers a typically excellent performance. Again, the format of this show is ideal for single-episode guest performances like this, which gives the it a great sense of potential.
Is Around the World in 80 Days going to end up e a Laura Linney-endorsed American sensation like Downton Abbey? The odds are pretty long, there. But it's an adventurous and episodic telling of a classic tale, and PBS should happily run with it.
Around the World in 80 Days premieres on PBS January 2nd at 8:00 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.