When it comes to the period drama, there are few series that excel at the conventions of the genre quite as well as The Gilded Age, the new series from Julian Fellowes. Of course, Fellowes is well-known to American audiences for his other famous series, Downton Abbey, which depicted life on an English estate as its residents cope with the many pressures of the 20th century.
While both series are great in their own ways, it’s nevertheless useful to lay out just how The Gilded Age is better than its predecessor and how it’s worse.
One of the most glaring absences from Downton was an addressing of race. With a few minor exceptions, the cast was white, and it rarely included any engagement with the specter of race relations in Edwardian England. In The Gilded Age, by contrast, race is front and center, and throughout the series the characters, both Black and white, have to deal with the ugly and racist realities of the United States in the decades after the Civil War, and the series shows the many triumphs and trials of people of color in this pivotal era.
Features Broadway Actors
There are many great characters in The Gilded Age (some of whom are very likable), but there’s no doubt that part of what makes it better than Downton is its use of venerable actors from Broadway. These include both Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector, Audra McDonald and Nathan Lane, all of whom play pivotal roles. This gives the series a powerful authenticity, as these famous thespians are able to bring out the complexity and richness of their given characters, allowing the viewer to get a sense of who they are and the role that they play in the drama.
More Spirited Characters
Given that Downton takes place in the Edwardian Era, their characters can at times be a bit stilted (this is especially true of those who live upstairs). In The Gilded Age, by contrast, all of the characters, whether wealthy or not, show a great deal of spirit as they contend with the various pressures and problems of this particular period of American history. Whether it’s Bertha trying to break into the upper crust or Marian daring to defy her Aunt Agnes, these are people who are determined to live life on their own terms.
Given that the characters of The Gilded Age are more dynamic than their counterparts in Downton Abbey, it makes sense that the HBO series would also be filled with more action than its predecessor. Its characters are frequently going out into the streets to partake of the life of the age, rather than staying secluded in their country home.
As a result, this allows The Gilded Age to contend with some of the most important issues that arose in this key period of American history.
Characters Are More Approachable
Even though Downton has many special characters, it has to be said that most of them can be a bit cold and distant (this is especially true of Mary). In part, this stems from the time, and also from the fact that it is a specifically British series. In The Gilded Age, by contrast, the characters seem to leap off of the screen, and there is a powerful dynamism that also allows them to feel like they are people that the audience actually knows.
There’s no question that the Dowager Countess is one of the best characters on Downton, and she is the focus of several key episodes. While Christine Baranski’s Aunt Agnes is a great character in her own right, it does seem as if The Gilded Age suffers a bit from not having the Dowager around. After all, there truly is no one who can quite compare to Maggie Smith, who allows the venerable older lady to be both very acerbic and very lovable at the same time.
Not As Pastoral
One of the key appeals of a series like Downton is its setting, and it quickly immerses the viewer in the beautiful estate of Downton and its environs. This feels like a place that one can go to escape the pressures of the modern world.
While The Gilded Age does an excellent job of capturing the hustle and bustle of 19th century New York City, the setting is not nearly as calming or quite as beautiful as Downton’s English countryside.
Less Interesting Downstairs Storylines
Some of the most beautiful and touching storylines in Downton revolve around the downstairs and the servants. While there is some of that in The Gilded Age as well, it has to be said that the stories that revolve around the servants lack the potency and power of their counterparts in its predecessor. In fact, they sometimes come to seem as little more than an afterthought, especially compared to the dynamic storylines that revolve around the Russells.
The Characters Aren’t As Interconnected
One of the advantages of Downton’s setting is that it allows all of its characters to be connected in one way or another. After all, they are all living in the same house, and so their fates are intrinsically tied up with one another. While there is a little bit of that in The Gilded Age, it’s largely the case that the characters aren’t especially connected to one another, and it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of how they are related to one another.
It’s no secret that there are many great British period dramas, and there is a unique pleasure that comes from stories set in the United Kingdom. While The Gilded Age can’t be blamed for featuring an almost entirely American cast, the truth is that, as a result, it lacks some of the built-in appeal that the British actors almost always give the period dramas that come from that country. In Downton, by contrast, the distinctly English nature of the stories and the characters ensures that it hits all of the right period drama notes.