HBO’s The Gilded Age, from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, has the potential to recapture Downton’s magic, but only if it avoids the pitfalls that plagued his earlier project, Belgravia. Originally set to air on NBC in 2018, The Gilded Age moved to HBO for an intended 2021 premiere before finally being released on January 24th of this year. The Gilded Age is set in 1880s New York City, where old money aristocrats clash with newly rich industrialists for status and power, as they preside over a country in the midst of a massive social and economic upheaval.
The show follows Marian (Louisa Jacobson), a poor young woman who moves in with her aristocratic aunts Ada (Cynthia Nixon) and Agnes (Christine Baranski). Across the street resides a new money family headed by railroad magnate George (Morgan Spector). The premise offers class tensions and marriage woes as Marian’s aunts want to find her a good match. While this does not pack the punch of where Downton Abbey began its 15-year journey, with the sinking of the Titanic and the estate’s heir along with it, the idea of centering the show around two houses and competing worldviews has promise.
The setting has potential, but Gilded Age must deliver the high drama, romantic fantasy, and audience relatability that kept Downton viewers coming back year after year. As Belgravia sadly proved, that’s harder than it sounds. Here’s what The Gilded Age needs to do in order to become the next Downton Abbey and avoid the pitfalls that plagued Belgravia.
The Gilded Age Needs To Avoid Belgravia’s Mistakes
Belgravia, Fellowes’ last attempt to recreate the magic of Downton, lacked the soap opera pleasures that made its predecessor so addictive. It tells a darker story revolving around thoroughly unsympathetic characters while displaying how untouchable the aristocracy is, and how it maintains its hold on power and wealth while gliding over its crimes and cruelty. The pilot depicts a real event, The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball, interrupted, in life and art, by the news that Napoleon has arrived and the men must march off to the Battle of Waterloo. This leads to beautiful Sophia Trenchard (Emily Reid) discovering that she has been duped by Lord Edward Bellasis (Jeremy Neumark Jones). The daughter of a rising merchant, she thought she had made a good match when she married him in a secret ceremony. Now pregnant with his child, she discovers the marriage was a sham. Even worse, Bellasis died at Waterloo, and Sophie, hidden away in shame, dies in childbirth, leaving the baby condemned to a life as an orphaned bastard. However, the aristocratic family suffers no consequences for what their son has done and it makes for not very pleasurable viewing. It’s telling that Belgravia season 1 aired almost two years ago and there’s still no word on whether or not it will get a second season.
Downton also weaved real history into its narrative, but always with a light touch and a commitment to telling stories about characters, not events. In the Downton Abbey movie, the Crawleys meet King George and Queen Mary, a story that was spawned from a real visit from the Royals to the Yorkshire estate where the show is filmed. Rather than the focus being on broader societal concerns relating to the Royal family, Downton’s attention remained on the logistical problems of not having enough time to prepare for the guests’ arrival – something anyone who has ever held a dinner party can identify with.
The Gilded Age Should Embrace Comedy Like Downton Abbey Did
Downton’s enduring power comes from its commitment to comedy. The show is so rewatchable because of its inherent lack of doom. Despite all the tragedies, the hopeful series always signals that this world is changing, and that means things are getting better. Matthew won’t be paralyzed forever. Mary will find love again. Years after the show ended, Mary’s quips, like the French holiday joke, are still being recalled and woven into the current movies. Memes of the Dowager’s comedic lines make the internet rounds every week.
Most importantly, audiences could laugh at the Dowager not knowing what a weekend was because her unequal world was fading away. The rules and restrictions that shaped destinies during both early 1900s Britain and 1880s America were by design, repressive and damaging. Such situations are also great fodder for humor, as rigid societies tend to be. A story about the wealthy people who take advantage of and harm everyone beneath them, often without even realizing it, must gravitate towards the funnier aspects of their lives to not alienate the viewer. The Gilded Age‘s characters (and writers) would do well to remember that modern audiences no longer want to see the wealthy exclusively placed on a pedestal, but stories that expose their flaws and enable them to be the aim of a joke the same as any other character.
Keeping The Story Focused On Both The Aristocrats & Lower Class Will Ensure Gilded Age’s Popularity
Downton Abbey escaped feeling like a love letter to the aristocracy by treating the people below them as equally important to its narratives. Even the 2019 Downton Abbey movie carries on the legacy of the show by treating the return of Carson the butler like a star coming out of retirement to play one last role. Given that the vast majority of the world and the show’s viewers would not have been Crawley family members but servants in this era, giving attention to the less glamorous makes the viewer feel like they have a valued role in this story. By contrast, Belgravia kept all the action upstairs and focused on the rich, not the people who served them. In doing so, Fellowes created a story that felt insular and out of touch.
Downton also shows how fragile the aristocracy has become. Previously, viewers watched shows about the uber-wealthy to revel in the fantasy of living in luxury. But in current times, romanticizing the ultra-rich has grown stale. Downton grew its audience by committing to propulsive melodrama and adhering to traditional romantic storytelling while making sure to include sympathetic characters both upstairs and downstairs. Downton servants Andy and Daisy getting married is just as emotionally rich as those of the Crawley family, not just because of the skill of actors Michael C. Fox and Sophie McShera, but also due to the balanced writing. But the rich also had relatable plotlines, such as Mary facing marrying someone she doesn’t know or like, and the Crawleys potentially losing their home. The Gilded Age must bring back the high drama, centering it around people audiences can enjoy rooting for.
The Gilded Age has a great opportunity to explore the varying pathways to status and security in a fast-changing world. If its pilot packs an emotionally resonant punch, it will accumulate the kind of sprawling cast of characters that Downton Abbeytook six years to build out. If the show can deliver a twist half as good as Downton‘s Mary getting her maid to help her drag away the dead body of her Turkish lover in the dead of night, it will be around for a long, long time.