Downton Abbey, you’re under arrest!

The charge? Not telling the truth about life in England before World War II—not the whole truth, anyway. The arresting officer? Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, of the Hastings Police, the central character in Foyle’s War, the British television series I’m binge-watching on Netflix.

As an on-and-off, I-never-watch-it TV snob, I’m coming around to the idea that this is in fact the second golden age of television. Foyle’s War is further proof, following Breaking Bad, my last TV binge and a series I was slow to notice.

Each episode in Foyle’s War is about ninety minutes long and presents a mystery deftly solved at the end, Hercule Poirot style, by Foyle. He’s ably and essentially assisted by Sergeant Milner (serving as Robin to Foyle’s Batman), a policeman before the war who lost a leg in Trondheim, and Samantha Stewart (played by the delightfully named Honeysuckle Weeks), a young woman seconded from the British Army motor pool to be Foyle’s driver. The reason why Foyle doesn’t drive but seems capable of it has not yet been stated, but unless it got past me I suspect it will be revealed later that it has something to do with his late wife.

Foyle, perfectly underplayed by Michael Kitchen, is reluctantly employed by the police in his hometown of Hastings, located on the southern English coast and thus at the front lines of the air war just starting. A WWI veteran, Foyle’s attempt to join the fight has been frequently and finally rebuffed by his superiors, who see his sleuthing skills better suited to the civilian side.

The irony of investigating murders during a war is not lost on Foyle, and for such a small town, business is good. The stories are clever, well-crafted, and woven into the larger tapestry of England at war. Although the viewer often sees the villain first, how Foyle detects and arrests him (and frequently, her) in the denouement can sometimes cause head-slapping surprise.

Beyond the stories, the series has more to offer. A lot has been made of Mad Men, with its spot-on, no-detail-left-out clothing, furnishings, and other props of the giants-of-Madison-Avenue milieu. It’s well done, but much of it could have been accomplished by a few trips to the Goodwill store.

Foyle’s War raises the ante on verisimilitude. This story is of much larger scope and set in a time and place harder than early-sixties New York to replicate. The series adds period cars—including a Humber Super Snipe, my all-time favorite car name—as well as a wide assortment of oddball buses, lorries and other wheeled vehicles; trains; military gear (up to and including multiple Supermarine Spitfires); and everything else large and small, posh and shabby, one would encounter in that time and place. Movies do this all the time, of course, but what impresses is how a TV series has gone all out to do the same when, unlike some movies, the setting is not the star. In fact, the series seems to make an effort to include the setting rather than employ workarounds like low-angle shots.

The series also employs what seems like every unknown British character actor in the business. They are all top-notch, and the roles they play are mostly well-drawn and three dimensional. There are some exceptions; senior military officers usually come across as upper-class blowhards, but in sum the characters portray a wide swath of the population in believable ways. This is important, because the Foyle’s War backstory is how the war is affecting people caught up in it against their will. Not all of it is good, and those effects are cleverly woven into plot lines. One of the most interesting parts of the backstory is how “a nation of shopkeepers” (as Napoleon allegedly described England) is portrayed fighting the war in large and small ways.

Downton Abbey is fine—I enjoyed every episode of it—but its theme of traditional upper class life in transformation between the wars is only a sideshow in Foyles War, in which the war—hence the title—plays a much larger role, as it did at the time. If Downton Abbey deserves the cheerleading it gets, then so does Foyle’s War. A fan website (www.foyleswar.com) is a good place to get on board. If you’re a fan of well-done drama and history in detail, then you should grab your remote and enlist in Foyle’s War.

Leave a Reply