Few networks are as willing to bet on new voices as Comedy Central. The network’s hustling approach to original programming has yielded such breakout hits as Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele — some of the freshest and most distinctive shows of the last few years. Just three episodes in, it’s too early to add Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome’s Another Period to that list, but the gleefully ruthless satire of the idle rich of yore is a hilariously garish feather in the network’s cap.
Though set in Downton Abbey times, Another Period is thoroughly of our current post-Occupy, post–Mad Men era. Among the show’s angry joys is its distillation of 99-percenter rage — a populist channeling of the idea that our social “betters” are our moral inferiors. Leggero and Lindhome star as Lillian and Beatrice Bellacourt, two society sisters desperate to join the Newport 400: “the 400 most important white people in all of America.” Frivolous ninnies at best (and stupid sociopaths at worst), Lillian and Beatrice sniff at newfangled trends such as female suffrage and women’s pants (aka “the butt dress”) and are catered to by a basement full of servants whose duties include peacock teeth-brushing and precise morphine administration (“We need to achieve the perfect balance between hallucination and death,” intones head butler Peepers, played by Michael Ian Black).
Another Period works as well as it does not only because it’s a crassly entertaining screed against the useless rich and their excesses, but also because it’s one of today’s smartest pop-culture commentaries about how we romanticize the past. If Mad Men straddled the line between wistful longing for midcentury fashion and flair and assured relief that we live in the 21st century, Another Period doubles down on the anti-nostalgia to mercilessly interrogate what sorts of stories we like to tell about history and why. There’s more than a bit of Mad Men’s “Can you believe things used to be like this?” winkingness in throwaway jokes about “chicken tartare” and “quieting syrup” for the children (i.e., morphine). And it’s hard not to be reminded of the AMC drama, with Christina Hendricks in this cast. The erstwhile Joan Holloway-Harris plays a new addition to the Bellacourts’ servant quarters, a woman with a criminal past who is newly christened “Chair” when Lillian and Beatrice deem her real name, Celine, to be too pretty for a maid.
Leggero and Lindhome often go quite dark (without losing their sense of humor) in mocking the prejudices and practices of eras past, as when the servants knock out Beatrice with chloroform during the sisters’ obligatory sex sessions with their closeted husbands (Brian Huskey and David Wain), or when the panic-stricken Bellacourts throw a sheet over their repulsive deaf-mute guest, Helen Keller, upon the arrival of a high-society arbiter who visits the Bellacourts to judge whether they’re Newport 400 material or mere “almost-rich vomit people.”
Despite the over-reliance on the same kinds of “aren't these rich bitches so rich and so bitchy” jokes, there’s no question that Another Period is a carefully thought-out and crafted show. Look no further than its highly concentrated joke density for the evidence. Like 30 Rock, the gags and quips are packed in so tight that the series occasionally feels like a hybrid between a sketch show and a more traditional sitcom (specifically, a serialized mockumentary) — making the chances for getting a laugh that much higher. The veteran cast, which also includes David Koechner as the family patriarch and Jason Ritter as Beatrice’s brother and lover, is uniformly excellent. But the standout is Leggero, whose overconfident vanity, grasping and blundering, topped off by her chihuahua-sized tiara, sets the tone for the Bellacourts’ schemes to increase their “infinite money” into “double infinite money” while testing the outer limits of human laziness. (Some workarounds of the Bellacourts’ extraordinary sloth will inevitably feel aspirational. A liveried valet to insert cubes of cheese into my open mouth? Yes, please!)
Leggero and Lindhome have pitched Another Period in the press as Downton Abbey meets Kardashians — the latter, I think, because mocking Kim and the krew is as popular as the Kardashians themselves. But it’s the Downton Abbey comparison that’s the more telling one, because Another Period strives for precisely the opposite of what the fuzzily Tory, nakedly nostalgic PBS series does. While Downton creator Julian Fellowes longs for a time when aristocrats were attractive, gentle-hearted patrons, and servants dutiful and tame (or tame-able) worker bees, Another Period heaps scorn on the rulers of its Gilded Age — and perhaps, by extension, ours — by depicting the entirety of the show’s 1-percenters as oblivious brats who complain to the help that they have “absolutely nothing to do all day except eat, take naps, hunt, relax, take drugs, play sporting games [and] do all the leisurely activities that please [them].”
Another Period briefly touches on today’s issues, too, as when the second episode features a discussion about “ravishing” jokes — still a hot and sensitive topic in comedy — and offers an example of how one might make them without re-victimizing sexual-assault survivors. But the show is at its sharpest when its mockery of period-drama tropes comes together with its targeting of the rich to ask why we get so wrapped up in stories about rich people’s courtship crises — which account for a vast chunk of historically set romances — in the first place, especially when the people involved were probably dull, exploitative monsters engorged by gout and privilege.
Of course, not all affluenza victims are made the same. Though their characters never stop being vapid, unlikable idiots, Leggero and Lindhome do reserve some empathy for Lillian and Beatrice by satirizing the almost unimaginably narrow limits of women’s roles in the early 20th century. When Beatrice receives a telegram in the pilot’s first scene, she lets out an overdramatic gasp in the way we expect. But when her husband asks what the message says, she states flatly, “I don’t know how to read.” In the next episode, when Lillian attempts to obtain this brand-spanking-new thing they’ve just invented called divorce, her plan to run into a door and accuse her spouse of abuse backfires when the cops wave her complaints away. They’re not interested if the man beating her is her husband, or even just some white man. Oh, and can she bring them some tea already?
You’d have to be crazy, stupid, heartless or all three to romanticize yesteryear, argues Another Period, and even then, you probably deserve better than to live there. After the show, you’ll probably never be able to watch a period drama the same away again — which is probably just what Leggero and Lindhome want.
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Inkoo Kang is the TV critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television. Follow her on Twitter at @thinkovision.