Having created one of the most-watched tv shows of all time, one would have forgiven the show’s creator and successful writer/historian, Julian Fellowes, for taking a break to enjoy his well-earned fame.
Still, he’s come straight back with another potential television hit. This time he focuses his attention on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Whereas Downton Abbey took an expert glance at goings-on in England, starting in the early 1910s, The Gilded Age is set in the United States during the ‘boom’ years around the 1880s and beyond.
Once again, Fellowes uses a specific period in time that is of great interest to many and then fictionalizes the surrounding characters to provide something of a window to the world approach to a time frame.
Historical recreations are always a big success, especially in the US, where they may well find charm in the representations of England in the early 20th century. On this occasion, the action takes place stateside and, as such, has even more resonance with an audience keen to digest it.
Incredibly Production Values
One thing that set Downton Abbey aside from many similar shows was the incredibly high production values, which were more in line with a blockbuster movie than a TV series. No need here for stock footage of a different era here; the hard work is put in to make everything look just right and therefore help the viewer submerge into this new ‘reality.’
With The Gilded Age, it’s more of the same; huge sums of money have been thrown at, making every little detail just perfect. Bringing the past so vividly to life helps do a great deal of the heavy lifting when it comes to impressing the watching viewers, but clearly, that isn’t enough on its own.
Julian Fellowes is a writer of real quality and has the ability to weave multiple character arcs together and to make sure that each and every player in his piece is as three-dimensional as possible, therefore making the audience effectively live and breathe in the show.
HBO has put a lot of money, and faith, on the show, and it’s likely to pay off if early impressions are anything to go by. The Gilded Age has all the pomp and ceremony you’d want from what is effectively Downton Abbey US-style. Amazing sets and costume designs to die for.
Christine Baranski (Cybil, Mamma Mia, and The Big Bang Theory) and Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) are perhaps the best known among the expansive cast at the center of The Gilder Age; they play bickering aunts in roles, not unlike Maggie Smith’s turn in Downton Abbey. The show starts in 1882 when a young Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) leaves Pennsylvania for New York City, destitute and sent to live with her estranged aunts.
Meanwhile, Bertha and George Russell are seeking to break into the upper classes but find their ‘new money’ something of a drawback when it comes to entering high society. Denee Benton, who accompanies Marian, is an aspiring writer looking to make her mark in a time when opportunities are rare for African-Americans.
The center of the show surrounds the social and class divides that the lead characters come up against and must rise above. What Fellowes does expertly, he is, after all, an Oscar-winning writer (collecting the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on Gosford Park), is give the viewer a window to the world and letting us see how things must have been for those who lived in the time.
However, he also manages to give each of his characters an inner purpose and drive so that you aren’t just watching for the sake of the scenery. In Downton Abbey, he managed this with aplomb and, in doing so, created a show that appealed to audiences around the world, which is no mean feat.
A Sure-Fire Hit?
It is perhaps a little too early to say, but the buzz around the opening episodes of The Gilded Age would seem to suggest that Fellowes has another hit on his hands and if there is one thing that can not be underplayed when it comes to the show it’s the love and effort that has gone into the creation of this new world.
The dedication and money thrown into the project in order to create a realistic and spectacular approximation of what life was like for anyone living in the 1880s is a joy to behold, and those who were involved in the project have been keen to highlight the freedom they had to make such a proposition work.
The show’s lead production designer, Bob Shaw (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire), has sung the praises of HBO in this regard;
“This is the biggest build I’ve ever done.”
“We kept drawing and doing illustrations, and they kept saying yes,”
“You draw a grand staircase, and you’re waiting for someone to say, ‘Well, how many times are they going to go up the stairs?’ And that never happened.” Shaw added.
The care and attention afforded to all who have worked on the project, from Fellowes to the hundreds involved in the production, is clearly something that appears to be paying off in a big way.