The British television series “Downton Abbey” was catnip for audiences who like their escapism with a dollop of history. The period drama depicted the lives of English aristocrats and their servants as they navigated the transition from the pre-World War I Edwardian era to the 1920s as cultural mores shifted and the rigid caste system that was the foundation of the old order began to crack up.
The question for HBO Max as it launches an American version of “Downton” written by the British show’s creator Julian Fellowes is whether the formula that captivated an international audience can work as well when set in 1883 New York. The short answer is yes.
If you like soap operas set in the past where the viewer can vicariously enjoy the lifestyles of the rich and famous as well as savor the loyalty and resentments of the people who were the servants, there’s no reason you won’t think Fellowes’ new show “The Gilded Age,” currently running on the premium cable channel turned streaming service, is great fun.
The story lines are different. While the initial conception for “The Gilded Age” was as a prequel for “Downton,” any crossover between the two was ultimately discarded.
The conceit of the new show is the conflict between the new money of a railroad robber baron and his social-climbing wife and the old-money families that controlled high society in late 19th century New York who don’t wish to treat them as equals. In theory, that ought to be more compelling than whether a British earl who married an American heiress can keep his family and his estate together in a changing world. But those looking for any deep historical insights into American history or the ability of entrepreneurs to buy their way into social respectability should look elsewhere.
“Downton” has received extravagant praise from those who have believe that the kind of television with a British accent presented by PBS’s “Masterpiece” series — where “Downton” appeared from 2010 to 2016 — was both entertaining and elevating.
“Masterpiece Theater,” as it was initially called, was both an expression of snobbery and a recognition that British television could often produce shows that were better than the prime-time fare the three broadcast networks were feeding American audiences before cable and internet. In addition to making Americans who watched it feel superior to their fellow citizens who eschewed such upscale diversions, some of the adaptations of classic literature or historical dramas shown were excellent.
Lacking Historical Insights
Perhaps the best British product “Masterpiece Theater” brought to America was “Upstairs, Downstairs,” which appeared from 1973 to 1977. Roughly covering the same period as “Downton,” “Upstairs, Downstairs” was the first show to treat both the servants and their masters as equally compelling subjects. More importantly, its scripts expertly weaved historical incidents and trends into the lives of its characters in a way that was both genuinely informative as well as compelling.
Fellowes’ “Downton” was a knock-off of that program, but the comparison was telling. As much as he is often spoken of as the Shakespeare of television scripts, his ability to depict history through the lives of his characters was far below the achievement of “Upstairs, Downstairs.” That’s true even if the feature film production values lavished on “Downton” — shot at Highclere Castle, an actual country home of an earl — put to shame its predecessor, which was filmed on a tight budget on cramped studio sound stages.
“Downton” benefited from a great cast headed by the indomitable Maggie Smith. But it succeeded best when it wasn’t trying to awkwardly shoehorn history into the story — its World War I episodes failed miserably — and just concentrated on the loves and schemes of the characters as well as the visual presentation.
Hits and Misses
The same strengths and weaknesses that were features of “Downton” are equally present in “The Gilded Age.” The show is beautiful to look at. As with “Downton,” the clothes and the settings are the real stars of the show.
Although Fellowes was not able to take over a standing relic of the mansions built by robber barons or their old money rivals, clearly no expense was spared in the building of sets or the recreations of the New York of 140 years ago. Even more spectacular are the costumes, with which the production team has taken infinite care to be historically accurate and to reflect just how much clothes defined a person’s status.
But equal insight into New York society is lacking in “The Gilded Age.”
Fellowes does his audience the favor of not depicting either of the main protagonists of his story as entirely good or evil. Like many of his main characters in “Downton,” they are fully realized and presented with some sympathy — with the new-money couple of Bertha and George Russell played by Carrie Coon and Morgan Spector, and their formidable old-money opponents Agnes von Rhijn and her sister Ada played by Christine Baranski and Cynthia Nixon.
Less successful are the characters who are there as plot devices or politically correct ticket punches. The story is largely told through the eyes of Agnes’ penniless niece Marian Brook, who comes to New York to live with the old-money sisters. But though Louisa Jacobson is charming, she gives us little reason to care much about which, if any, of the potential contenders for her hand succeed.
Another problem in the early episodes is Fellowes’ failure to make his “downstairs” characters as vivid as the ones he created for “Downton.” Indeed, in the early episodes available for viewing, the only downstairs character of any interest is not actually one of the servants.
Peggy Scott, played by Denée Benton, is a young African-American woman and aspiring writer who, through a contrivance that strains credulity, becomes Marian’s sidekick and then Agnes’ private secretary. Although she lives and eats with the servants, she doesn’t share their struggles or, for good or for ill, live vicariously through their employers’ exploits, as do others below stairs in both this show and its predecessor.
Although a story about African-Americans in 1880s New York might be interesting, Peggy is entirely tangential to the main plot and is merely a reminder that in the Black Lives Matter world, it is impossible for an American television show to not have black characters and story lines. As a result, regardless of Peggy’s merit, it’s hard to think of her as anything more than a distraction from the rest of the proceedings.
More evidence of Fellowes’ less than sure grasp of an American subject is his decision to conflate some of the members of the city’s society establishment with members of New York’s Board of Aldermen, who are bribed by Russell. Even a cursory knowledge of New York politics in that period involves the understanding that the city was largely dominated by the Democrats’ Tammany Hall machine and its immigrant supporters rather than old money aristocrats. Even Tammany’s sometimes successful Reformist foes were not led by members of New York’s “400” families that are at the heart of “The Gilded Age’s” drama, a mistake that Fellowes would never make in a British story.
While all this make it a lesser effort than “Downton,” there is still enough glamor and drama among the protagonists to reward the fans of the British show for indulging Fellowes’ excursion across the pond. If you’re interested in a deep dive into the society that inspired the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton and that was the setting for Martin Scorses’ 1993 film “The Age of Innocence,” look elsewhere. If you tune in to “The Gilded Age” for the clothes, the opulent settings, and some romance and intrigue, you’ve come to the right shop.